Modern Slavery – What?.. you thought slavery was abolished?

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  • November 8, 2012 11:32 pm

SLAVERY: The State of the World at the Turn of the Millennium

Slavery in Review
1441: Portugal initiates the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade along the coast of modern-day Mauritania.
1787: Establishment of the London Anti-Slavery Society, now operating as Anti-Slavery International.
1838: Britain is the first European power to abolish slavery in its New World colonies. Others follow suit.
1888: Brazil is the last country in Europe and the Americas to join the abolition bandwagon.
1890: General Act of Brussels commits European powers to include abolition as part of their “civilizing mission” in Africa.
1900: At the turn of the last century, slavery, at least in the Euro-American worldview, is an unfortunate chapter in world history that had been closed everywhere but Africa.
1905: Slavery is abolished in Mauritania under the French.
1919: Convention of Saint Germain-en-Laye revises the Act of Brussels and reaffirms the European commitment to end slavery and the slave trade.
1925: League of Nations Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery is signed; it is amended in 1926.
1948: United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 4, prohibits slavery and the slave trade.
1956: Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery expands the definition of slavery to include such practices as debt bondage and affirms the signatories’ commitment to abolish them.
1961: Independent Mauritania includes abolition of chattel slavery in its first constitution.
1966: United Nations International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 8.3, bans forced or compulsory labour.
1976: Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act outlaws this practice in India.
1980: Mauritania once again abolishes slavery.
1989: United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32, protects children against hazardous and exploitative work and suggests that children under 12 years of age not have jobs.
1992: Indentured labour is outlawed in Pakistan.
1992: The Dominican Republic amends their labour code to protect the rights of Haitian debt labourers.
1997: Brazil passes a bill to protect workers from debt bondage.
1998: The Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association reaches an agreement with the International Labour Organisation to phase out industry dependence on debt labourers less than 18 years of age.
2000: Now we stand poised to begin another century, another millennium, still or once again convinced that slavery is a thing of the past. The American Anti-Slavery Group estimates (as at 1999) that there are at least 27 million slaves in the modern world. They are living and dying around the world in such countries as Mauritania, Sudan, Uganda, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Brazil, Dominican Republic, United Arab Emirates, Israel, and the USA.

Modern Slavery
Slave ships crisscrossing the Atlantic with their human cargo of misery and desperation have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but slavery and slave trading continue. Modern slaves often do not leave their own countries once captured or trapped, and if they do, they are more likely to do so on airplanes or buses carrying official work visas. Since slavery is officially outlawed around the world, slave traders go underground or disguise their business as labour contracting. By whatever name, the practice of using slave labour not only continues but flourishes in certain industries. Women and children make up the majority of twentieth century slaves and desperate misery still characterizes their lot.

The United Nations defines a slave as anyone whose movement or decision-making abilities are curtailed such that they do not have right to choose to change employers. This rather broad definition is designed to encompass the types of slave labour that characterize the twentieth century institution, such as bonded labour, serfdom, servile marriage, child labour, migrant labour and forced labour. It also still includes the more traditional form, chattel slavery, in which one person is subject to the will of another and treated like property (bought, sold, worked). Although chattel slavery is now relatively uncommon (though not extinct), its nineteenth century stepchild, debt bondage, is, in one form or another, the most common form of slavery today. Debt bondage is the practice of exchanging labour (that of the debtor or members of his/her family) for a loan. Technically, there is nothing illegal about this exchange but the lines are crossed when labourers are underaged, conditions of work are hazardous, labour is not remunerated at standard rates, debts are artificially or illegally inflated and/or workers are held or sold against their will. The people most vulnerable to this type of slavery are women working as domestics or sex workers, children and migrant labourers. Case studies best illustrate the thin line that separates these people from our conventional notion of chattel slaves.

Documented Cases
Perhaps the most notorious examples of modern slavery are those of Mauritania and the Sudan. Both are countries that straddle the border between Arabic North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Both are known for inhumane treatment of Black Africans in their efforts to eradicate all non-Islamic cultural traditions, and, within both, the elites hold slaves as property. In the Sudan, a civil war has raged between the Arabized north and African south for 33 of the 43 years since independence from Britain in 1956. The tactics of cultural annihilation practiced by the government include raiding Dinka and Nuba villages in the south for slaves who are then sold in the north. These people have suffered branding, rape, castration and female circumcision and number an estimated 100,000. In Mauritania, the situation is different. The dominant ethnic group is the White Moors or Beydanes who have traditionally held Black Moors or Haratines as slaves. The Haratines have lived in slavery to the Beydanes for centuries and modern slaves are born into their lowly position. They are Muslim and speak the same dialect of Arabic as their masters. They are often abused and can be bought and sold at the will of their owners. Full chattel slaves number approximately 80-90,000 while about 210,000 are classified as ‘other slaves’. Both countries have resisted international efforts to document slavery within their borders and neither country has made any significant efforts to abolish the practice despite international outcry.

There are numerous examples of situations of debt-bonded labour that approach chattel slavery in the severity of treatment and loss of human rights. Brazilian families are continuing to search for missing male relatives who left to work in the Amazon region and have not been heard from since. There is no official estimate of the numbers of men who have disappeared into slave labour in the jungle. They are generally poor men from the northeast of the country who follow recruiters promising decent wages and good working conditions. Once they arrive, they find themselves stripped of their identity papers and forced to work clearing jungle for little to no pay. To keep them there, they are charged for everything including tools, transport, food and lodging and told they have to work off the debt. They are often chained together while they work and sleep in guarded compounds. Those who try to escape are killed. The government has made legislative changes prohibiting this type of slavery, but there have been few prosecutions and there is no witness protection programme for those who are brave enough to testify against land owners.

On the other side of the planet, ten million Indian people work in farming and manufacturing industries under similar conditions. They generally come from the lower strata of Indian society such as the untouchables, indigenous or tribal peoples, poor women and children. Some have been ‘sold’ into bondage by a relative who accepts a loan in exchange for their labour, while others are born into debt and into bondage. Hundreds of thousands face identical circumstances in Nepal. Whereas India recognizes the problem and has supported efforts to end the practice, Nepal does not even outlaw debt bondage and refuses to acknowledge the scope of the problem. The stories are similar in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

These are all examples of people being exploited within their own countries. The situation is often worse when workers migrate and become vulnerable outsiders. Known as braceros, approximately 300,000 Haitians are trapped in bonded work in the Dominican Republic. They come from the poorest strata of Haitian society, itself among the poorest countries in the hemisphere, and hope to survive in the cane fields of the Dominican Republic. Their tragedy begins when they manage to scrape together enough money for a three-month visa to work in the DR. Once they are there, they are employed by government and private cane plantations to do the dirty work of cutting cane – work that Dominicans refuse to do because it is so horrible. The braceros live on the plantations in villages with no sewage or public services. Their pay is frequently withheld and they are forced to buy their food at inflated prices using company issued coupons and tokens that take the place of cash wages. When they cannot pay to extend their work permit, they become illegals and are thereby even more at the mercy of the companies than before. They fear expulsion from the country without pay and this keeps them from organizing or demanding better treatment. The Dominican government has amended its labour code ostensibly to protect these workers but government cane plantations continue to be among the worst offenders.

Among the most abused of modern migrant labourers are women. Poor women from around the world cross borders on the promise of steady employment at good rates. Some do so voluntarily and find themselves trapped by unscrupulous agents upon arrival, while others are abducted as young girls and sold into servitude or sex slavery. Chinese and Philippino women accept debts of $6-7,000US to acquire jobs on Saipan, one of the islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a United States territory since 1976. Saipan is an export production zone that caters to such US American brand names as Polo, The Gap, Jones New York, Liz Claiborne, Calvin Klein, Disney and JC Penny. The women are often told that they are paying to go to the US only to find themselves living in guarded barracks working without pay in Saipan. They are forced to sign shadow contracts that restrict their freedom to leave, organize or change employers. Some have been forced to abort children if they become pregnant. Needless to say, US labour standards and practices are not honoured here. Women from South and Southeast Asia also migrate to the Middle East, particularly Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and richer centers in Asia like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to become domestic servants. Like their counterparts in Saipan, they are often misled and mistreated once they arrive and are indebted to recruitment agents by the cost of their journey. Their employers confiscate their papers to make them dependent and there have been many cases of physical and sexual abuse.

The other major wave of female migration involves the sex trade. Thailand is notorious for its sex tourism industry, but what many clients fail to realize is that the prostitutes and dancers are often being held against their will. Young girls from northern Thailand, Burma and Cambodia are ‘bought’, lured or abducted by intermediaries working for Thai brothels. The girls are raped and beaten until they succumb to the routine of prostitution work. They are exposed to STD’s, are often drug addicted and have no recognized rights. This industry caters largely to foreigners from other parts of Asia, Europe and North America who visit Thailand, Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia on ‘sex tours’. Despite public awareness, there appears to have been few remedial measures taken to curb the industry where it flourishes. Notably, a number of countries – including the UK since 1997 – have passed laws that make it illegal for citizens to engage in sexual acts with minors even when they are abroad. These laws do nothing to protect adult women in the same circumstances, however. UKRAINIAN WOMEN******

If the plight of women were not horrifying enough, that of poor children around the world is chilling. Pakistani industries like carpet and brick making began to rely on the labour of children during the export boom of the 1960s. Child labour is paid, when it is paid at all, at about 1/3 of the adult rate. In 1996, there were an estimated eleven million children working in Pakistan – half of these under the age of ten. In certain industries, like carpet making, they constitute 90% of the total workforce. Many of these children have been sold by their parents for a loan. This institution is known as peshgi and requires the child to work off his parents’ debt at a prefixed rate. Once separated from their families, the children are abused, exploited and often worked to death. There is even an identified syndrome known as ‘Captive Child Labour Syndrome’, which is characterized by tuberculosis, undernourishment and deformation of the body due to repetitive work in harsh conditions. These symptoms will claim approximately half of the working children in the country by their twelfth birthday. On a positive note, one industry has succumbed to international pressure. The carpet makers have agreed to phase out the use of child labourers (approximately 0.5-1.0 million of the total) over the next three years in cooperation with the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Children are working in conditions of slavery nearly everywhere one finds poverty or crises. In West Africa, children from Benin and Togo are being exported to wealthier countries like the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Gabon as domestic chattel slaves. An institution known as vidomégon has been transformed from a practice allowing poorer relatives to place their children with richer ones for education and upkeep, to one that fuels the international traffic in child labourers. Likewise, Cambodian and Vietnamese children are purchased or abducted to work as beggars in Thailand. The children are sometimes mutilated so that they earn more money and are always malnourished to keep them dependent on the agents who control them. In wartorn Uganda, Amnesty Internation estimates that there are at least 8,000 abducted children working as soldiers for the rebel army, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This war is thirteen years old and for the last 5 years or so, the rebels have depended on abducted children to fill out their depleted ranks. Children of both sexes are made to fight while girls are also used as sexual objects by male soldiers. The LRA supports the Sudanese government against Sudan’s rebel forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and the Sudanese reciprocate by returning runaway child soldiers. The ILO estimates that 250 million children work worldwide. Not all of them are abducted, sold, abused or enslaved, but many sacrifice their childhood in order to survive in a world of poverty and economic insecurity.

These are just a few examples of the way modern-day slavery operates in the late twentieth century. In many ways, the global situation is unchanged from one hundred or even two hundred years ago: millions of people still benefit, directly or indirectly, from the exploited and unfree labour of millions of other people. There are no slave ships navigating the middle passage, but anywhere there is poverty, desperation or crisis, there are middlemen to negotiate, buy, lure, abduct or entrap their victims into slavery. The world market still runs on the profit principle and still has a place for the trade in human lives.


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