Slavery is not a thing of the past

JODI L. JACOBSON

February 19, 1992|By Jodi L. Jacobson

SLAVERY is a social evil assumed to have been eradicated long ago -- or was it? Recent reports confirm that a clandestine trade in human beings is now thriving on several continents, in numbers far greater than ever before.

Anti-Slavery International (ASI), a London-based human rights organization founded in 1839, contends that at least 200 million people are currently enslaved throughout the world.

According to international convention, slaves are people made to work against their will, for little or no pay, and without the freedom of choice to seek alternative employment. The three most widely recognized categories of slavery include enforced child labor, debt bondage and traditional chattel slavery.

The most widespread form of slavery today is the exploitation and ill treatment of school-age children, used by landowners and factory operators to lower their labor costs. Many child laborers are kidnapped outright. Others come from impoverished families, or are orphaned or abandoned, left to work for sheer survival. All put in long hours -- up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week -- at hazardous occupations with inadequate food and little or no pay.

A number of reports, including those from the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Center on Human Rights, indicate the use of child labor is endemic in virtually all developing countries. In Morocco, for example, girls as young as age 5 are commonly "employed" in the carpet industry because their labor is cheap, and they remain docile and subservient. The majority of these girls suffer from overwork, along with severe eye and back problems; malnutrition, disease and deformity prevent many from working past puberty.

In India, an estimated 50,000 children aged 6 to 16 work in glass and bangle factories unprotected from blasting furnaces and breathing air heavily polluted with smoke and dust. In Thailand, hundreds of thousands of children, some as young as 3 years old, are sold by their families to the owners of Bangkok sweatshops.

Debt bondage or indentured servitude -- the pledging of labor to pay off a debt -- occurs most frequently among landless people on the Indian subcontinent. Lacking assets of any kind, they mortgage their muscle power for small loans from landowners and other moneylenders. Estimates indicate that as many as 25 million adults and from 5 to 15 million children are bonded laborers in India alone. Alan Whittaker, a researcher at ASI, asserts that the "prevalence of bonded laborers in Pakistan and Bangladesh rivals that of India."

Those with little or no income commonly borrow money to pay for food, clothing or medicine, as well as fulfilling the strict social obligations of dowries, weddings and funerals. But a loan of as little as $10 is enough to ensnare an individual in a lifelong web of debt.

The vast majority of bonded laborers, unable to read, "sign" with their thumbprints agreements binding them to conditions sure to keep them perpetually indebted. Indeed, Whittaker's research reveals that "a permanent source of cheap labor is more important to money lenders than is recovering the original debt itself." The unpaid debts of a parent who dies are paid by the labor of their offspring.

Chattel slavery, the "ownership" of one person by another -- thought to have been abolished worldwide by early in this century -- is once again on the rise. It is still practiced among some nomadic tribes in sub-Saharan Africa. Thousands of Dinka tribes-people are enslaved by other ethnic groups in the Sudan, for example.

Refugees and illegal aliens make especially easy targets for slave traders and are frequently subject to human rights abuses. In the Dominican Republic, illegal Haitian immigrants are rounded up and forced to work on sugar plantations under threat of deportation.

Untold numbers of children have been sold to moneylenders, traders and others by their impoverished parents.

Sexual slavery, another form of chattel, is now on the rise in many countries. The sale of women and children, especially girls, into prostitution or enforced marriage has been documented throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Such transactions are most common in the Philippines and in Thailand where "sex tourism" has become a lucrative source of international exchange. Cases of sexual slavery among female Mozambican refugees in South Africa, among women in Turkey and among poor women shipped as "mail-order brides" from developing countries to the United States and Europe have also been uncovered by ASI and the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

Contemporary slavery exists despite U.N. conventions forbidding trade in human beings and anti-slavery laws on the books in virtually every country. Swami Agnivesh, an Indian anti-slavery activist, claims his country's laws are among the best in the world, "but never get out of the library."

The problem is part of a deeper and equally under-recognized phenomenon -- increasing poverty. Structural adjustment policies imposed on many countries by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund undercut the social services vital to the poor, and to poor women in particular. The consequent deterioration in their status is in part responsible for the rising trade in children and women. These same policies have increased pressures to export large volumes of agricultural and manufactured goods as cheaply as possible, encouraging the exploitation of child labor.

Clearly, the atrocities of slavery -- the callous humiliation and abuse by people of other people for financial gain -- is not a thing of the past. The virulent spread of slavery is one more sign that conventional development strategies have failed to address the poverty now epidemic in much of the world.

Jodi L. Jacobson is a researcher for the Worldwatch Institute.

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