Participants in a Wharton School conference this month on business in Africa got a bit more than they bargained for amid presentations on topics like trade, technology, consumer goods, and “re-branding Africa’s image.” They also heard a talk by a “World Trade Organization representative” who argued for the return of slavery.
It didn’t exactly come out that way, however. Because the speaker, an impostor from a satirical group known as the Yes Men, spoke in the thick jargon of international public policy, his call for “full private stewardry of labor” seemed like just another NGO nostrum.
“Full, untrammelled stewardry is the best available solution to African poverty, and the inevitable result of free-market theory,” said the impostor, according to a very realistic looking news release on a Web site whose address made it appear to be related to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the precursor of rules adopted by the World Trade Organization. Under the organization’s proposal, he said, Western companies doing business in Africa would be required to own their workers outright.
Sounds harsh, no? Not to the Yes Men. Just as “compassionate conservatism” has made the overhaul of labor relations palatable in the West, the speaker said, “compassionate slavery” could do the same for the developing world.
And in true Borat fashion, the audience at the University of Pennsylvania seemed to go along with the idea. The only question from the audience, apparently, was what employers would do with slaves — or, rather, stewarded labor — who were too old to work. The biotech industry would solve the problem, the speaker assured.
Details of the prank were posted on the Culture Kiosque Web site.
The Wharton School was not amused. In its online account of the conference, the impostor’s listing as a panelist has been replaced with a note dissociating the conference from him.