Story Background:

The main crux of my story is that one of the 2 mcs - Delilah- is from a group of people being exploited, and the other is the son of the leader of the group doing the exploiting - Jack. Delilah is helping people leave the situation they're in, but the people doing the exploiting send Jack under cover to try and stop it. (Obviously, he then has character development, and we follow as he changes for the better and all that good stuff.)

Exploited people are leaving their situation, resulting in a lack of work being done by that group. The exploited group (once rested and feeling restored) take advantage of their exploiter's weakened state, and the country ends up going into civil war.

It's set on a small archipelago, 'Island Union', with the exploitation happening (mostly) to the north of the central island, by the south of the same island.

What I'm looking for

What I'm stuck on is the specifics of what exactly the exploitation is. (I'd rather it not be to be too similar to any one specific instance of irl exploitation. I don't mind so much if it's more similar to the exploitation that's happened within the British Isles, since I'm from the UK, and much of the rest of the setting and culture is heavily inspired by the UK.)

I think it would be good if it's the main source of income for the I.U. I think that might help make a juicier internal conflict for Jack, as well as give him a somewhat less terrible reason to be doing this.

Things I've thought of

  • Lithium mining. this is what I was initially thinking of, then I figured the worker would need to be highly trained for that, and it wouldn't work for a series of 5 tiny islands.

(Edit: The main reason I thought maybe not this is, I had a couple readers think it didn't make sense for a tiny island to be able produce enough lithium for other countries to be interested in buying it. The island has to be tiny. For story reasons, they need to walk to where they are to where they need to go. I was thinking ~5/6 days walk from east to west, so ~144 miles - and probably about 75 from north to south. Li mining typically uses large evaporation lakes, and requires a large amount of space. Granted, there were a couple other things some of them said that made me think it would be fair to ignore their specific feedback, but that was a doubt I was already having.)

  • Coal mining, but I'd rather it be modern if it can be, and that didn't seem to fit with the way things are going, climate wise, but it might work in a 'its terrible conditions for the workers, who have little other choice in the matter, AND it's bad for the climate!' might work.

  • Food source The northern half has excellent farm land, but terrible coastlines for sea fairing, and the south is the other way around, finding it almost impossible to feed themselves with their own farming, relying on sea trade as well as northern farms. I did think this might be a good way for it to work. In many ways, I want the I.U. to be of some note to the rest of the world, and this doesn't offer that. However that might have the benefit of explaining why the rest of the world might not get involved with the later civil war (which would make things simpler for me!)

I would really appreciate any input anyone could offer! I often find it hard to see which might be best or think of any other ideas. These are just the things I've thought of. If there's something not listed that jumps out at you, I would love to hear it!

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    $\begingroup$ You're asking us to spit-ball ideas which isn't what this SE is for, so you're likely to attract close votes .. and what makes you think Lithium miners need to be any more highly trained than other miners? .. have you tried to find out to see where it comes from and the way that its mined in the real world? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore im trying to ask for an outside perspective on which is likely to be the best (most believable, i guess) choice. That might not have come off properly... also, because Li is a relatively reactivate metal and generally not found in high concentration, its a big process to mine it, with big-rigs and what not. $\endgroup$
    – aurorajack
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 17:00
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ where and how big are the islands is the biggest factors, fishing, trade, fruit, tourism, oil, sea floor mining and manufacturing are all possibilities. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Joachim Thanks for the question feedback, I've edited the question to include this, but the main reason is I had a few people say it seemed unrealistic/hard to believe for there to have a higher concentration than might be expected, and unrealistic/hard to believe that they would produce enough for it to worth it in the global market. $\endgroup$
    – aurorajack
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Something really arbitrary can sometimes be a viable source of income for a small nation. For instance, the government of the island nation of Tuvalu gets nearly 10% of its income from its ownership of the .tv top-level domain $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 16:57

14 Answers 14


Pearl Diving (or similar sea-based resources)

There is a reef off the north coast that has a unique and valuable shellfish species, and the northerners job is diving for them.

Exactly why these shellfish are so valuable could vary. Pearls are the obvious answer - top-quality natural pearls can sell for thousands or even millions of dollars each (La Peregrina sold for over $10,000,000 in 2011, but that is with significant historical significance on top of its raw value). On the other hand, a historical story might use Tyrian Purple, while a modern or sci-fi take could give them pharmaceutical properties (imagine how valuable an anti-aging drug or reliable cure for cancer would be) - or if you want to double down on how evil the bad guys are, they're the key ingredient in a new, dangerous, but highly-addictive illegal drug.

Regardless of why they're valuable, this species has very specific habitat requirements that mean they can't be farmed (or, in the case of pearls, farmed ones are considered 'cheap knockoffs'), so they must be harvested in the wild.

Reasons why this is unpleasant and exploitative can be tailored to your story needs, but could include:

  • The workers are paid pennies for recovering a product worth a fortune. (Supposedly the worker who found La Peregrina in the 1500s was rewarded with 'his freedom') This one is obvious, but included for completeness.
  • The sea where the shellfish are harvested is particularly dangerous, due to currents, weather, temperature, or some combination of all three. This likely fits well with your note in the food section about the north having a terrible shoreline - only a mad or desperate person would swim off North IU, but that's the only place where Union Rainbow Pearls are found...
  • Technological assistance isn't possible. There's no way to harvest these with nets or lines from the surface, and they're too fragile or difficult for a robot to handle, so a diver is needed. Perhaps they live in caves or reef crevices that are barely large enough for a human, so SCUBA gear is too bulky - or the gear can be used, but there's a major risk of death-by-snagged-air-hose.
  • Alternatively, the assistance is possible - perhaps an automated harvester has recently been developed - but the exploited group can't afford it themselves, and the exploiters don't want to pay.
  • The flora and fauna in the area are particularly dangerous. Sharks, sea snakes, salt-water crocodiles, tangled kelp forests, merfolk, krakens... whatever it is, as above, only a madman swims off North IU.
  • The shellfish themselves are dangerous - perhaps they have venomous claws/spines or are just highly poisonous to the touch. If they're valuable because of some chemical that can be harvested, the dangerous part may well be the reason they are so valuable in the first place.
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! this was something I hadn't even thought of, and fits perfectly! $\endgroup$
    – aurorajack
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ @aurorajack glad I could help. $\endgroup$
    – Toby Y.
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Consider also Horseshoe Crab blood, which sees wide use in the medical industry and is extremely valuable per unit. If the island is habitat to a creature which produces a valuable biological material not available from any other source, then harvesting those creatures becomes very lucrative. $\endgroup$
    – Marsh
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 15:54

Archipelago in the middle of the ocean?

Tourism, where the locals are exploited as cheap work force while a few have the property of the facilities and get all the money paid by the tourists.


Have a foreign power import educated labourers

There's an island with a poorly known but similar situation to yours. Nauru

Citizenship in the minirepublic is restricted to the native Nauruans, a brown-skinned, mixed-blood people, predominantly Polynesian but of mysterious origins - their language is unlike any other - and there are only about 4,300 of them. Nauru is technically the richest country in the world, body for body and acre for acre, because the Government's annual income from the sale of phosphate is at least 123 million, or more than $ 27,000 a year for every Nauruan man, woman and child.

Everything is tax free. ''Taxation is unsuited to the Nauruan temperament,'' President DeRoburt once said. Nor are the Nauruans troubled with the hard and dirty work of mining the phosphate that is their sole export and the source of the island's wealth. Laborers are imported from the nearby island states of Kiribati and Tuvalu, Hong Kong and the Philippines to do that. Managers, supervisors, technicians, schoolteachers and top Government administrators are recruited from Australia, New Zealand and Britain, the three countries that formerly ruled Nauru jointly. In general, Nauruans either work in the phosphate industry or in national or local government. Nauru, which has a low crime rate, also employs 57 Nauruans on its police force.

Essentially you have some sort of foreign power importing in foreign labourers to work on an island to produce some extremely valuable goods. It could be lithium mining, it could be coal mining, but regardless, very intelligent and well educated citizens from some foreign country that's fairly poor and not well connected were lured in by a much richer and more prosperous power to do the mining.

They work in slave like conditions, and legally no one cares because the natives get paid tons of money and massive perks to tolerate it, and because the international community gets a rare and valuable product. Enough money gets sent home to their home country that the native country is ok with it. Everyone wins, except the slaves.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I am slightly miffed that people who are paid large enough wages to make a material difference to the economy of their home country are somehow deplored as having to work in slave like conditions... when they could be free workers in their own country for much lower wages. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ They couldn't be, they're slaves, they can't leave. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Commented Aug 28, 2022 at 22:45
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AlexP The workers are paid better than they would be in their home country. So financially they are better off. At the same time, working conditions are terrible (and worse than similar work in their home country), work is dangerous with lots of accidents, high mortality and all kinds of abuse going on. Sadly there are a number of place in the real world where this happens. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the linked NYT article is from 1982. Unfortunately, since then, Nauru's phosphate mining has declined, and its trust fund, once worth a billion dollars, was mis-invested into insolvency. And a large part of the island is no longer usable for agriculture because the mining operations removed all the soil. Today, Nauru's economy is propped up by Australia paying it to host a detention center for illegal immigrants. $\endgroup$
    – dan04
    Commented Aug 29, 2022 at 16:36

1/12 of the whole income of Tuvalu is from the .tv top-level domain.

Your archipelago can have a natural resource (either digital or something like oil) where profits are only distributed to the Jacks and not the Delilahs.


The exploited produce a cash crop (or manufacture something in warehouses or their homes) but lack distribution channels and are thus forced to sell all (or most) of their products to the exploiter in exchange for products they cannot make themselves (metal products + tech?).

The attempt to develop alternative distribution channels could provide another reason for the undercover spy deal. For an island where boats coming in doesn't work well you could maybe try seaplanes or something?

This would likely require the exploiters to be somewhat unpleasant in their pursuit of maintaining their distribution monopoly but I don't think it would require them to be absolute dictators - which might be something the central government/other islands would not approve of.

Assuming this war does develop, it seems the north side of the island would be almost completely dependent on their new distributor to be providing them with weapons.

If they are farmers, they would likely retain the ability to feed themselves but would lose their primary trade channel for everything else.

If they are workers who manufacture products, they may be able to repurpose some of the factory tools to aid them in making weapons but would then likely require food from their new trade channel.


All exports must go through the exploiters.

Option 1, through law: Residents of the island are not allowed to sell their goods directly to foreign buyers. Any stock not sold locally must be sold to the Government, who then sells it to the foreign customers, of course at a profit. Anyone caught smuggling faces grave consequences.

Option 2, through technological resources: Due to a peculiar seabed formation in the area, the waters are nearly unnavigable around the archipelago. Jack's family are the only ones with ships able to navigate the treacherous waters, and therefore the only ones able to export goods to the outside world. Foreign buyers would have the resources and technology to develop boats capable of sailing through the region, but since the goods are already being delivered to them they have not gone through the effort. The formations that make the waters hard to navigate can be several miles off the coast, leaving some navigable waters near the islands for fishing with more basic boats.

Either way the end result is that it makes the exploiters the only available buyers for families in IU with a surplus of goods produced/gathered (which would be most of it, in an export-based economy). This means they can set the price for which they buy the goods from the exploited workers who will have to choose between getting pennies for their work or nothing at all.

From there the resource itself can be anything. It doesn't need to be unique to the island, or even particularly rare or scarce elsewhere. It can be a mix of multiple industries too. The obvious industries for islands are of course fishing, but also tropical fruits like bananas and sugar cane.




Prostitution in the Dutch Caribbean (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten) is legal and regulated.[1][2] At least 500 foreign women are reportedly working in prostitution throughout the islands.[3][1] Bonaire,[4] Sint Eustatius, and Curaçao are sex tourism destinations.[2]

Curaçao, Aruba, and Sint Maarten are destination islands for women trafficked for the sex trade from Peru, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti,[3]

Your exploited persons are prostitutes. Few if any are born on the island. They wound up in this work for various reasons. The exploiters run legal brothels and pay taxes, supporting the government.

-- I like the idea of revolution and the workers taking control; the government becomes a democracy. But the brothels continue because sex tourism is good money and other options are scarce. Not in a cynical way - now working conditions are good and workers are protected not exploited. Could that be ok?



An island in a vast ocean is a prime location for an airforce and/or naval base for a superpower.

Have the Jacks struck a deal with a superpower where they lease part of the island to the superpower. Part of the deal is a supply of labourers to do construction. The Delilahs form this group of labourers.



Islands attract seabirds, which leave dung that's rich in nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. Over thousands of years, they can build up huge deposits.

That guano is then valuable as a fertiliser, and as a precursor for nitrate-based explosives (gunpowder etc.) Before the invention of the Haber process, which allowed for making these products from atmospheric nitrogen, guano was a very important industrial and military resource. This resulted in colonial powers looking to control guano-rich islands and mine them. See Nauru for an example of how this has worked out historically.



External parties could be supplying the capital, in the form of large and effective fishing trawlers, but then employing locals at cutthroat rates and keeping the lions share for the profits for themselves as the "owners" of the boats. Workers are free to move from boat to boat in search of better deals, and boat captains frequently play rivalries off each other, but at the end of the day, no matter which boat you serve on, you always seem to get a raw deal, either from poor profit sharing or "company store" style policies. For example, you made $1000 for this fishing trip, minus \$300 for lodging on the boat, minus \$200 for food on the boat, minus a \$150 safety fee, minus a \$200 equipment fee, so your take is \$150.

If you then wanted to raise the drama stakes, you could have the fish be largely for foreign consumption, and have that consumption displace locals ability to feed themselves. Real world example here may be Quinoa, which, now that it has become popular in the US, has become much harder to afford for locals for whom it used to be a staple.

Resistance from the locals could take the form of unions, sabotage, deliberate underperformance, and other such things to start with; enforcement from the capitalists may take the form of beatings, blackballing, economic coercion, and other such things.


Financial services, insurance, legal services, tax haven, software services, money laundering, gambling, knowledge-based services, many famous islands and archipelagos do that. but the island(s) need a draw... where are they near?



If the islands are in the tropics, the trees there tend to grow quickly, which is ideal for a lumber trade. Islands are also a great place for building ships, and at least in the early days of seafaring, ships require a lot of wood. An island nation in a strategic place in the ocean would be a great place to stop over for repairs, and to build more ships if needed.

Logging is backbreaking mostly low-skilled labor, so one more check for your exploited local workforce. Any oppressor nation with a large navy will be looking for ways to acquire lumber from their vassal nations in order to expand and maintain said navy, so this would be a perfect resource to exploit.

For a good real-world example, look up Sebatik Island off of Borneo, on the border between Malaysia and Indonesia. If you look at the island in Google Maps satellite view, you'll see that nearly all the trees there are in perfect even rows, due to the European lumber trade that used to control the island.


Purple (or equivalent)

The reason purple was associated with royalty in Roman times and earlier is that the only known method of producing it then was from a certain type of mediterranean sea snail, only found in Phoenicia (I believe the name Phoenicia is from the same root as the Greek word for purple, although stand to be corrected here).

From your suggestion of lithium mining I'm guessing your world has more advanced technology than ancient roman, however the same principle could apply given a niche non-synthetic substance (that is, farmed or hunted rather than manufactured). Make it a luxury item like a dye or cooking substance for maximum cruel needless profit to whoever controls the trade, or raise the stakes to make it a medical or otherwise more needed substance such as insulin or an antibiotic for a more dramatic version.

Indirect Force Exploitation

Exploitation means using an unfair advantage to increase profits.
Where that unfair advantage is physical (workers threatened with violence, superior weapons etc as has so often happened irl and historically), it's going to make a very predictable development/storyline for the main characters because the moral choice is so clear-cut - and you run the risk of the audience disliking Jack at the start because of his (presumably) exploitative nature/circumstances before he undergoes development.
However if the unfair advantage is more subtle and indirect (for example controlling of trade routes, travel, a legal loophole or a resource crucial to the industry) a single entity/company/group can maintain a monopoly easily without the working population necessarily realising they are being exploited - remaining (fairly) willing workers within their limitations. A further narrative benefit of this sort of exploitation is, generally in a physical exploitation case the exploitees must rely on superiority of numbers (to some degree) to effect a revolt, whereas in the more indirect form a much greater effect can be made by fewer characters undermining or getting out of the system, as a rule.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "make it a medical or otherwise more needed substance" - Horseshoe crab blood, used throughout the modern medical industry to ensure tools are truly sterile, is a real-world example of this, though horseshoe crabs aren't unique to a handful of habitats. $\endgroup$
    – Marsh
    Commented Aug 30, 2022 at 16:01

Any resemblance with real people, place or events is purely coincidental. Except not really.


Island nations can make for very attractive vacation spots, and you can certainly develop a healthy industry off that, with hotels, restaurants, jetski rentals, boat or helicopter tours, and so forth.

You can already exploit people just on the salaries. If basically all the jobs are in the tourism industry, your choices are 1) low salaries of the service industry serving first-world tourists, 2) no job, 3) buying a ticket out, presuming you want to uproot your whole life, can afford to, and there's a government that'll want to let you in.

In short, the owners and shareholders get the lion's share of the profit, meanwhile the staff is paid peanuts because they don't have any power in that situation.

Then you have the double whammy of the cost of living. Island nation with small islands means firstly you don't have a lot of land. You can fish, you might have some arable land to feed your people, you might have some trees to build houses, and that might be fine for your population, but then you have all those tourists to keep happy.

Fact is, the trouble of living on an island with very limited land is you have to import a lot of things.

First there's food. More people require more food. Tourists might eat more individually than locals. Tourists might also expect things that your island has never produced. And to add insult to injury, all the fresh, local produce, well that can be sold off at a higher price to tourists, so hope you enjoy imported canned goods.

Then there's manufactured goods. You need resources to make stuff, but you also need factories. Industrial zones and tourist areas don't mix very well, assuming you have the real estate to spare in the first place.

Then there's also fuel. Yes, solar power is nice, but the panels are imported and degrade quicker when you're in the middle of the sea. Wind and wave power can conflict with tourism and boat traffic. But you sill have planes, boats and most cars that still run on combustion.

And once you face the fact you have to import everything, you have to think about the port you'll need to import it. The smaller the port, the more expensive imports and exports get.

So the higher the cost of living, the less you can afford to not have a job. And bonus points if you can guess who runs the supermarkets.


The British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, the Seychelles, Bermuda, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Vanuatu, Tonga, you get the idea hopefully.

Favorable tax laws mean foreign banks come to your islands. Rich foreigners bring their money into those banks. Of course, those banks have to be staffed, but there's also lawyers and accountants that can provide a wide range of fiscal services.

The lower the taxes, the more attractive your tax haven. You try to offset the nominal tax rates with the sheer volume of money to be taxed. 50% corporate tax on a million is half a million. So is 1% corporate tax on fifty millions.

So all the banks, lawyers and accountants handling all that tax evasion can make a hefty profit. And the best part is, they also pay taxes, and possibly at a higher rate because bank clerks maybe can't afford to pay a tax lawyer to dodge their taxes.

In short, make money from money, and also from the people making money into money.

Luxury natural resources

Most natural resource you can think of, some other nation can probably export more of it and cheaper. You'll have to import the equipment and fuel to extract and process it, and then you'll need the necessary infrastructure to export it.

Overall, you're severely limited in your ability to compete with e.g. China, or the United States, or Brazil, and other large nations, but even with small continental nations, even just because they either can produce the equipment themselves, or can import more of it and cheaper.

Pearls, as suggested in an answer, do work because it's luxury and niche. So there isn't much competition, and you can still make an absurd margin even if export costs are also absurd.

The best bet here is a resource that can be uniquely tied to your island will. A protected designation of origin of sorts. Think "Cuban cigar". Sure, you can make cigar elsewhere, but the rich people, they want handrolled Cubans.

Doesn't matter much how little you can produce, or expensive it is to export, because nobody else can make it. That's the best thing about luxury: supply and demand need not apply. You can set prices arbitrarily high, and that'll only make it more prestigious.

The nice thing is you can combine all of the above. There may or may not be overlap on who controls those industries, but the import part is that the revenue those industries generate is what the government functions on.

In practice, those interest groups control the government, so they can lobby for extremely favorable conditions making them even richer.

Meanwhile, the workers have no choice but to basically take any job, at any cost, because everything is expensive and you can't live on welfare.

And then it shouldn't take much to spark an uprising.


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