Slavery Today

When most people think of slavery, the image that comes to mind is of black slaves in the United States in the distant past. But as is now becoming better known, slavery and forced labour exist today, in even greater proportions than any other era. This fundamental human rights violation remains widespread despite the many conventions and laws against it. Slavery occurs because of a combination of linked political, economic and cultural factors. In the long term, the eradication of slavery is bound up with the eradication of poverty. In the meanwhile, there are things we can do to end these horrific abuses.

Forced labour describes several different but related types of activity. All forms involve the loss of personal freedom. Some examples include forced domestic work, forced prostitution following trafficking, and forced labour imposed by the government or military. Some forced labour is outright slavery where a person is completely controlled through violence, paid nothing, and economically exploited. Sometimes these slaves are owned outright (as in past), but more commonly they may be tricked into slavery. The most common form of slavery is bonded labour, where people are forced to repay small loans through labour, with themselves as collateral. The interest on the loan is outrageously inflated, and so a person may be enslaved for years repaying the original debt many times over. Because potential slaves nowadays are so cheap and plentiful, they are frequently denied medical care and sufficient food. If someone dies from mistreatment, another slave can be easily and cheaply obtained. The incentive that has existed in some other historical periods for slaves to be treated well enough to be optimally productive is today nonexistent in most cases.

We don't need to argue about whether this situation is acceptable or not. It is a basic truth that nobody should be treated in this manner, regardless of cultural and economic justifications. Slavery and forced labour are prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and several other UN and ILO Conventions. Whats more, slavery is illegal in all countries.

Nonetheless, forced labour and slavery remain widespread, although it is difficult to get exact figures. The number of people affected by forced labour is certainly in the millions This includes a (conservatively) estimated 27 million people enslaved (Kevin Bales). This is significantly more than the entire population of Australia. Forced labour exists in almost all countries (even unexpected ones like the US, France and the UK), but is most prevalent in south and Southeast Asia, northern and western Africa, and parts of Latin America.

One particularly horrific type of forced labour occurs in Thai brothels. Thailand is a major hub for human trafficking in Asia, with (mostly) women being trafficked both into Thailand from Myanmar and Laos, and from Thailand to Japan, the United States, and Europe. Women and girls are frequently purchased from their parents by recruitment agents for brothels. Alternatively, they may be tricked into forced prostitution with false offers of factory or domestic work. Once in Thai brothels, the women are often forced into debt bondage (repaying their purchase price). As repaying the debt is virtually impossible, women forced into prostitution in Thailand are released only when they become ill (often with HIV), or die. They are often beaten and raped by their pimps, and live in dirty, cramped conditions. This kind of slavery is extremely profitable. Laws prohibiting forced prostitution are very rarely enforced, due to rampant police and government corruption. In fact, bribes from brothel owners form a very normal, almost institutionalised, part of police income. This is just one example. Other well-known cases include the forced human minesweeping in Burma, bonded child labour in Indian and Pakistani carpet making (etc), traditional chattel slavery in Mauritania, slavery in Brazilian coal mines, and domestic slavery in France and the UK.

Rapid social change and ingrained cultural beliefs often play a part in causing and/or perpetuating forced labour. Modernisation and economic globalisation have contributed to the breakdown of traditional family and social structures, which in turn has contributed to the development of new forms of forced labour. In addition, tradition and custom in many cases sanction the use of forced labour. For example, in India, employers of bonded labourers often see the relationship as like a parent-child relationship: mutually beneficial, and justified by the Hindu caste system. Forced prostitution in Thailand occurs partly because of the Thai culture, which is patriarchal and encourages submissiveness and obedience in women. Furthermore, Theravada Buddhism, predominant in Thailand, encourages acceptance of suffering, and also sanctions the use of prostitutes.

Political factors also play an important part in causing forced labour to occur. Firstly, the political disenfranchisement of certain groups of the population makes them especially vulnerable to coercive and deceptive recruitment practices, trafficking, and other forms of forced labour. Secondly, government and police acquiescence, or, frequently, active participation, plays a major role in allowing and causing forced labour. Governments may lack the political will to stop forced labour, and police, with their monopoly on legal violence, are often heavily involved, as we have seen in Thailand.

But economic factors are at the root of forced labour. A societys poorest people are almost always the primary victims of forced labour. However, not only is poverty a necessary precondition to forced labour, so is the existence of a wealthier group of people with the resources and skills to exploit forced labour, and a market for the goods or services produced. Trade liberalisation and economic globalisation are frequently blamed for exacerbating inequality and competition, thus eroding labour standards and providing fertile ground for the growth of forced labour. The cultural, political, and economic causes of forced labour are closely linked. It is the most economically deprived in a society who also lack political power and are socially marginalised. Although oftentimes the products and services provided by slaves remain in the local economy, it's important that we realise that slavery also fits conveniently in a world economy that places importance on profit rather than people. And when we recognise that slavery and forced labour are part of the same global economy that we participate in, we must also ackowldge that each one of us is linked, if indirectly, to these human rights abuses.

Finding long-term solutions to forced labour is difficult because of the sheer size of the problem, and because of the complex cultural, social, political and economic context. As Bales (1999:235) argues, in the long term, wiping out slavery requires helping the worlds poor to gain greater control over their lives. The eradication of forced labour is intimately connected with the eradication of poverty, discrimination and political powerlessness. It goes without saying that this is a mammoth task. Nonetheless, it is one that must be attempted and there are things we can do to tackle slavery and forced labour specifically, and poverty generally. These are just a few ideas:

  • Find out more. A good place to start is the Anti-Slavery Societys website (see Links), or Kevin Bales book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.
  • Write to governments, both local and overseas, and urge them to enforce their anti-slavery legislation.
  • Ask questions about labour standards when you are buying things. Often the shop assistant will stare at you blankly and say they don't know, but the more people ask (and refuse to buy without satisfactory answers), the more attention will be paid to the issue. You could also write to the company and ask them what their policy is (but don't take their word for it!).
  • Where possible, buy fair trade products. For example, forced labour and slavery are rampant in the Ivory Coast, where much of the worlds cocoa is produced. This cocoa flows into the chocolate we eat but we can avoid buying the brutalisation of cocoa plantation workers by buying fairly traded chocolate and cocoa. The same holds true for several other products.
  • Donate money or time to a development organisation which is tackling the poverty and powerlessness that makes people vulnerable to forced labour.

by Caitlin Whiteman