Defining an Exploitative Relationship

If I have something and you need that something then is it wrong for me to take advantage of that situation by seeking to achieve personal gain? If that something is a rare commodity and I am one of the few people in possession of that something, is it wrong for me to take even more advantage of my ownership of that possession?

When would I be considered to be abusing my position? When does such a position become exploitative?

Most people would probably accept that exploitation, taking advantage of somebody else’s need or vulnerability, is wrong. Yet, identifying a situation as being exploitative is quite often very difficult to establish.

If exploitation is about taking advantage of a situation for some gain, then it would suggest that all commercial transactions are exploitative. Anyone who sells something for profit is exploitative; anyone who employs somebody in order to profit from their labour is exploitative.

That, unless you are of an extreme Marxist persuasion and believe that the labour market is endemically exploitative, is patently wrong.

Exploitation must therefore relate to excessive gain, well beyond what would normally be considered acceptable. It’s alright to make a reasonable profit but when that becomes exorbitant then it also becomes exploitative.

The trouble with this definition is that excess is relative. When does something become too much? Ten dollars to a paddy field worker in south-east Asia is a lot of money but to a resident of New York it would be small change.

It also challenges the fundamental basis of capitalism which is a market based system of free competition where the interplay between supply and demand determines profitability. Profit is made by trying to charge as much as possible whilst endeavouring to keep costs as low as possible. Capitalism has an intrinsic propensity to seek out and take advantage of exploitative opportunities.

Perhaps exploitation is best defined as when the “going rate” is not being paid. If somebody is being underpaid in comparison to what would be the normal pay rate for a particular job then this is exploitative. But that definition is also rather weak. Whole populations (sweatshop workers in Asia, factory workers in Victorian Britain) might be being underpaid, meaning the “going rate” is set so low that there is mass exploitation.

One possibility is to suggest that exploitation occurs when one party makes a much more substantial gain than the other – that there is a one-sided relationship which generates uneven and unfair returns thus suggesting it is exploitative.

Again, this definition is not entirely sufficient as somebody can be exploited even when the difference in returns to each party is relatively minor. This is because financial returns are not the only exploitative consideration. Somebody can also be exploited for their knowledge, their skills or their contacts.

Surrogate mothers or organ donators, for instance, can be well paid for what they do but they may also still be considered as being exploited.

As a definition of last resort we perhaps need to consider exploitation in a more general manner; that it exists whenever someone is forced to do something against their will. But once again, the vagueness makes it difficult to apply. Financial necessity means I have to work even though I would rather not; some parents will insist that their children eat their vegetables even though the children don’t like them; I have to do the weekly household chores because my wife is busy with other things.

Every day we have to do things that we don’t always want to do. If exploitation is about doing something against our will then it is very difficult to pin-point.

Ultimately, the problem with identifying an exploitative relationship is that what we might identify as exploitative may be perfectly acceptable to somebody else.

  • Migrant labour. They may be underpaid and have to live and work in poor conditions but they may still earn more than they would otherwise do if they stayed in their home country.
  • Prostitution. If a woman sells her own body that might be considered as enterprising – she might even be thought to be exploiting men for their sexual needs. On the other hand, if a woman prostitutes herself because she is desperate for money and a man takes advantage of her desperate need so that he can satisfy his sexual needs then the man might be considered as exploitative.

If there is a pimp involved, somebody who makes money out of prostituting women, then he is certainly exploiting the situation. Or is he? When does a facilitative service become an exploitative one?

  • Surrogate mothers. If somebody employers a woman to act as a surrogate mother, how can you determine whether such a relationship is exploitative? How can you put a price on being a surrogate mother?

That’s why we have to be careful when applying such descriptive terms. A calling it out, “do good” attitude may be well-intended but, when both parties find what some might consider as an exploitative situation mutually beneficial, should we not be more considered about interfering?

Exploitation is certainly about taking advantage of some vulnerability in others whether they be weak, lost or in need. But identifying it does tend to be rather judgemental and therefore is more often defined by our own position, values and lifestyle.

Given that there is also no universality in our standards, principles and attitudes it means that we may be able to readily identify exploitation when it is at the extremes and is obviously unfair. The problem is when it is at the margins. It’s like trying to define night time. When it is pitch black outside then it is obvious but what about during those twilight periods. Should they be classified as night time?

The difficulty can be further illustrated by considering the relationship between employer and employee. This is a relationship that could readily become exploitative but when does it:

  • When the employer earns far more than the employee.
  • When the employer makes an employee do things that the employer wouldn’t do themselves.
  • When the employer rather than the employee chooses the rate of remuneration.
  • When an employer uses an employee for their productive output but has no consideration for their wider needs.
  • When an employer makes an employee work excessive hours.
  • When an employee’s working conditions are so poor that it makes them unwell.

There can be so many variables, so many grey areas; it becomes impossible to be definitive. At one point something can be acceptable; one step further and it is exploitative.

We therefore have to be wary when others seek to expose something as exploitation. Describing something as being exploitative is emotive and judgemental. It is essentially an opinion.

In fact, exploitation is perhaps more of a feeling than a state of being. That is why, despite it being condemned and viewed as an offence, it still happens.

The problem is that if you cannot unequivocally define it then you cannot unequivocally identify and prosecute it.