Selling Off Our City to Slavery

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“Our history reveals how powerful individuals de-industrialised our city and deprived our people because they saw greater value in exporting and extorting and perceived profit-making as more attractive than poverty-proofing.”

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph: 07/10/2019 [Online], Available: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/ewan-gurr-decisions-on-future-must-put-people-before-profit/  [Accessed: 2019, Oct 08]

Exactly ten years ago, I visited India for the first time. I was there on best man duty for a friend but, while there, I decided to take the opportunity to travel and see some of the country. I organised to spend a few days volunteering for the organisation led by Mother Teresa in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta. She died in 1997 but her legacy was clearly still alive and volunteering in the House for the Destitute and Dying was a moving experience, as I cared for terminally ill men who died even in my short time there.

At the end of day one, I walked around Kolkata and observed a lorry carrying along a kind of old rusty freight with ‘Dundee’ emblazoned on the side in faded white letters. I spoke to some of the locals and discovered that it had been exported from the dying embers of our city’s jute industry in the 1970s. The jute industry in Dundee, at its peak, employed 40 per cent of the city’s population – around 70,000 people – and brought industrial resilience to the city as well as financial stability to many families.

When I returned from India, I sought to secure a memento made from jute and ordered a rug for my wife via a fairtrade catalogue, which mentioned its origin was Kolkata. It was then, for the first time, I realised that the jute barons’ decision to export the industry from Dundee, motivated by a stated desire to cut costs, had enslaved a whole race of foreign people to poor pay. This is why fairtrade organisations intervene upon unethical working practices in places like Kolkata to ensure workers are fairly remunerated.

Our history reveals how powerful individuals de-industrialised our city and deprived our people because they saw greater value in exporting and extorting and perceived profit-making as more attractive than poverty-proofing. In doing so, they not only enslaved a race of foreigners but sold off 70,000 of our own citizens to competing for jobs that did not exist. Record levels of unemployment were the inheritance left for us as prosperity vacated the city and poverty moved in like an unwelcome lodger.

Slavery is like the ownership rights over a property, except it relates to people. Kevin Bales, a Professor in Contemporary Slavery, in his book Disposable People, estimates that 27 million people still experience modern day slavery, like many workers in Kolkata. Financially-motivated decisions were made in Dundee that sold off the prospect of prosperity for our citizens in a manner closely related to slavery. They did not sell the individuals personally, but they sold any hope of securing a sustainable future.

Dundee has, for too long, been enslaved by some deeply dubious decisions made behind closed doors. I only hope and pray the decisions made going forward prioritise our people over profit.

2 comments

  1. Ewan. That’s a partial history. India (mainly Bengal) was producing jute and jute products long before us. The British East India Company undermined Indian production by ‘acquiring’ the raw product and bringing it to the UK for processing and production of goods (what it did best in most industries). The jobs Indians had disappeared as did control of their markets. The people working in Jute production in Dundee were impoverished and worked for less than subsistence incomes. Dundee was using child labour well into the 20th century. Practices were unsafe and exploitative. They got jobs on the back of Indians losing theirs.
    The rich capitalists at the end of the 19th Century, who baulked at paying non-impoverishing wages, had a great wheeze to take production back to India where impoverished Indians could be better exploited. They lived off the back of this until India managed to escape the clutches of the Empire. India now has it’s products and markets back after more than 200 years of theft. Those workers may still be receiving impoverished wages and the owners may well still be exploiting even if they are no longer Dundonians. Romanticising Victorian industrial practice and exploitation does a disservice to history and those exploited by it for the benefit of the very few…

    1. Hi Rod, you are absolutely correct. Thanks for posting!

      Unfortunately, I only have 450 words to play with in these articles so I am often unable to say as much as I would like but the main point I sought to get across concerned the “rich capitalists” who have de-industrialised and deprived the city which, sadly, has been a common theme in Dundee for at least the last half a century. There are also many other reasons, beyond even your post, that I simply was not able to fit in.

      However, I would also push back on the comment regarding “romanticising Victorian exploitation”. My point is if the jute industry were still alive in Dundee, current legislation would ensure every employee be paid at least the national living wage, would be preserved from lengthy shifts and be given suitable breaks under the Working Time Directive, have access to union representation and child labour would not be possible. I am certainly not arguing for a return to the working practices of the late 19th and early to mid 20th century.

      Thanks again for reading and posting.

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