When missionaries-turned-tribal-advocates Gene and Mary Long moved to Thailand in 1978, they were initially tasked with supporting a hill tribe in transition. The Mlabri (or “Yellow Leaf”) people had lived an almost perfect jungle existence with limited interaction with outsiders. The Longs arrived, along with their toddler son Allen, at a time when deforestation was slashing back thousands of acres annually—soon there would not be enough jungle terrain for the Mlabri to continue hunting and gathering. Allen (Udom) Long came of age in close contact with the Mlabri and observed what happens to a shrinking culture as their home turf disappears. “The Mlabri had no place to hide, in a very real sense,” Long told me.
Northern Thai farmers and other hill tribes, including the Hmong, moved into the area. While cultural precepts demanded the Mlabri could not become farmers themselves, they could farm for others for wages. Theirs became an odd amalgam of new experiences—Allen’s father introduced the Mlabri to mirrors, something they’d never before encountered. Modern inventions attracted them—flashlights, radios, lighters. Long explains that the community “didn’t understand the market value of the products they wanted.” Laboring for Thai and Hmong farmers, some Mlabri would work half a year to earn a flashlight. Some naively became linked with drug trafficking. Slash-and-burn agriculture using dangerous chemicals, at abusively low wages, became their means of survival.
When you place an order on Amazon.com and a package ends up on your doorstep a few days later, you may not consider it what it took to get it there. The logistical systems that enable massive online retail are built on human labor, and an industry of factory "pickers" exists to scoop books, shampoo, and whatever else you order off warehouse shelves and into cardboard parcels.
Journalist Mac McClelland ventured into one of these packing facilities to experience life as a “warehouse wage slave,” and discovered that the experience is physically trying: Impossible quotas and uncomfortable working conditions—not to mention precarious job security and unfair labor practices—leave the pickers who scramble around the warehouses in a position of near-exploitation. But the workers need these jobs to support their families and themselves.
As politicians left and right lament that stingy banks won't lend "to get the economy going again," another source of capital sits untapped precisely because the government stands in the way: You, me, and anyone else who wants to invest directly in fledgling companies.
With wheels turning in Washington, that may soon change. When it does, the first beneficiaries are likely to be social enterprises—businesses with a social mission.