Modern-day slavery

June 11, 1993

The story of the Chinese immigrants who spilled onto a New York beach this week is more than a tale of people so desperate to enter this country that they will try any means, legal or illegal. It is also a reminder that the scourge of slavery is not entirely dead. Outlawed for well over a century in most parts of the world, slavery has stood as one of the human rights battles the world has already won. But in many countries, millions of people still live and labor under slavery-like conditions.

Chinese immigrants like those on that luckless ship sometimes pay as much as $35,000 for passage to America in unsafe, filthy conditions with little to eat. The only way they can repay such a debt is by working it off. This kind of "debt bondage" is found occasionally in countries like the United States, but in some parts of the world it is distressingly common.

In some cases, the debt -- typically an "advance" offered to a laborer which is paid off by future earnings -- is carried from generation to generation, often increasing as time goes by. The U.N.'s International Labour Organization reports that in some instances laborers are working to pay off debts that were initially incurred eight generations ago, a span of two centuries.

Debt bondage may not fit the technical definition of slavery, but the effect on people's lives is the same. In Pakistan today, at least 20 million people are thought to be working as bonded laborers; about 7.5 million of them are children. India has millions more. On Peru's plantations and in the country's mines, workers have a name for debt bondage -- enganche, or "the hook." The New York Times reports that European brothels are now filled with women lured from formerly communist countries by false promises of jobs, only to find themselves forced into prostitution.

Traditional slavery, in which there is no pretense about working off debts, still exists in some parts of Africa. Mauritania outlawed slavery in 1961, but the practice is so ingrained in the culture and economy that slaves seeking freedom have a hard time supporting themselves with no education or marketable skills. Forced labor is a growing problem in Sudan, due in large part to the upheaval and chaos of the country's civil war.

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the fact that so many forced laborers are children as young as 6 or 7. Laws against slavery are important, but forced labor can crop up in one form or another wherever people are desperate and impoverished. Reports of modern-day slavery sting the conscious of civilization and offer a reminder that economic opportunity is an essential component of human rights.

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