This is insane. It seems that prisoners in China are being forced into slave labor... playing World of Warcraft. The in-game money and goods they earn are then sold to Western players for real-world money.
It sounds shocking, at first. As the above link points out, the scheme is straight of out a lousy sci-fi plot: "Prisoners being used as slave labour in an artificial reality?"
But the practice is not quite as odd as it seems. First, in-game items and currency -- in World of Warcraft and other games -- have been sold for real money for quite some time. The people who buy it aren't necessarily crazy, either: acquiring stuff in an online game takes time, and often players would rather spend their time using their stuff than earning it. So it all comes down to exactly how a player values his time. If he would rather spend twenty (or two hundred) dollars to buy an item than spend however many hours earning it, purchasing the item from the internet black market is a rational economic choice.
(I do have a vested interest in defending the practice, because, well, I'm loathe to admit it, but I did at one point in my life buy a small amount of online currency. Don't spread it around.)
Second, once the economic opportunity existed, the window opened for individuals with access to cheap, reliable labor necessary to exploit it. And as we see here, they did.
There's a temptation to dismiss this story as an oddity of the modern world. But I think it also leads us to a broader point about underpaid workers more generally. Because in a sense, this isn't any different than any other consumer good being manufactured in the third world or in unacceptable conditions by underprivileged laborers. T-shirts, fruit, and now digital gold: they're one and the same, from a certain perspective.
In all these cases, there are three preconditions:
- Cheap labor, which is available in many forms, in many countries
- And a means of conveying the products from the laborers to the consumer
If you want to fight the exploitation of workers, you have to remove or alter one of the preconditions.
What you've seen during the last few decades is a lot of people attempting to accomplish this goal by changing demand. "Don't buy Nike; their shoes are made in sweatshops!" "Get oranges from the farmer's market; that way you know they weren't picked by underpaid Mexican workers!" The idea, of course, is that by avoiding products which were produced unethically, we can encourage manufacturers to pay their workers more and generally embrace humane labor practices.
But as this article proves, wage slavery is not the province of a handful of global actors; more and more, even small-time entrepreneurs (like the Chinese prison guards) have access to the global markets that allow them put cheap labor to use. The result: more and more products can be produced in exploitative conditions.
This poses several dilemmas for the responsible consumer movement. First, how do you know which products not to buy? It was easy when you could just avoid certain brands. But it seems implausible that anyone in a developed Western nation could know how every product they buy was produced. Second, at some point, asking people to avoid certain products takes on an almost monastic quality, raising practical and ethical problems. Should a person be asked to avoid a certain kind of thing because they live in a global economy which sometimes produces that thing unethically? Because these days, a lot of different types of things fall into that category -- you'd be asking people to give up an awful lot. More pragmatically, not many successful mass movements are built on the idea of self-deprivation and forbearance.
In other words, you can't get rid of worker exploitation by tinkering with demand. So that leaves two other avenues: raising the cost of labor, and disrupting the medium of transfer.
It seems to me that correct choice here depends on context. For instance, there is simply no way that Blizzard Interactive can raise the cost of labor in China. So instead, if they wants to address the prisoner slave labor problem (and it's a major PR blemish, so I imagine they will), they'll have to find some way to crack down on sales between Chinese producers and Western consumers. Blizzard might step up monitoring somehow. More likely, I think, they will take efforts to drive Chinese players from Western servers, dissolving the intercontinental marketplace altogether.
In the real world, options aren't quite so limited, but labor conditions in China and elsewhere are still mostly going to be controlled by the respective national governments. (Outside agencies can lobby for unionization or other forms of workers' rights, but as long as cheap labor is a profitable resource, it seems that the various governments benefit as much or more by ignoring those pleas.) So the one remaining option, it seems, is proactively tinkering with international markets to prevent worker exploitation.
Now I'm generally all for free trade. In a perfect economy, freer trade benefits all sides. And often, that has proven the case with the real economy as well. Nor do I believe that every instance of a foreign worker getting paid less than the US minimum wage is bad; sometimes, it's just comparative advantage at work. But abuses do happen, as we see here, and they can go beyond perilously low wages: it's not hard, in the shadier corners of the planet, to force groups of people to do work they wouldn't do otherwise. And there are more subtle forms of coercion -- social, political, sexual -- than outright imprisonment and beatings.
So it seems prudent, considering the dearth of other options, to find a way to in those instances to step in and proactively limit the sale -- or the medium for the sale -- of goods that can be and are produced in abusive environments. I'm no expert on international trade, and I'm sure there exist a host of mechanisms for exactly that purpose. And since exploitation still happens, I'm also sure these mechanisms are quite insufficient for the task before them. I'll leave the actual policymaking up to the experts, for now. But strangely enough, I think World of Warcraft has helped me understand the best place to start looking for a solution.