Modern Forms of Slavery


June 13, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

The Chinese who scrambled onto a New York beach one recent night are but a tiny blip in the annals of illegal immigration. Their arrival was more dramatic and public than most, but the conditions of their travel -- and of the servitude that awaited many of them -- are not uncommon at all.

Like every country, the United States guards its right to control its borders and to regulate who can and cannot enter. But like other affluent countries, it is finding that desperate people can make any border porous.

Immigration is one of those complex stories so loaded with causes and consequences that only the dramatic sight of a boatload of wet, shivering, miserable people on a beach not far from the Statue of Liberty can rivet public attention.

The spotlight helps to illuminate some of the more sordid aspects of the story. One of them is the frequency with which illegal immigration is tied to practices that come awfully close to slavery.

Most of us assume that slavery is one scourge humanity has put behind it. The practice has been outlawed in most of the world for well over a century. But for millions of people around the world, that fact is merely a technicality. When so many people lead such miserable lives, it is easy to see why illegal immigration is a thriving business.

But rather than opening new opportunities, the urge to %o immigrate can also contribute to the problem of forced labor. Officials believe that the Chinese who ran aground last week were to have paid up to $30,000 for their passage to America. Debts like that in effect guarantee years of indentured servitude.

In other cases, unwary would-be immigrants find themselves trapped by unscrupulous employers or sponsors in foreign countries where they cannot speak the language and don't know their rights. The New York Times reported recently on the latest phenomenon in European brothels -- women lured from formerly communist countries in Eastern Europe with promises of good jobs. Often, however, their "sponsors" fail to mention that these jobs involve prostitution.

Earlier this year, a report from the U.N.'s International Labour Organization, detailed the extent of the problem of slavery and its modern disguises of debt bondage, child labor and other forms of involuntary labor. Whether these cases involve unwary immigrants seeking economic opportunity or simply landless peasants forced into working conditions that are tantamount to slavery, it is clear that the world has not eradicated such evils.

Traditional slavery is rare, but it is still embedded in the culture and economy of one African country, Mauritania, where it was not officially outlawed until 1961. There, slaves who seek freedom have a hard time making their way with no education or marketable skills. Outright slavery also appears to be growing in Sudan as a result of the chaos of that country's civil war.

These cases are disturbing, but far more people are victimized by more sophisticated forms of forced labor. This kind of "debt bondage" that can entrap immigrants is found occasionally in developed countries, but other forms of the poractice are distressingly common in many parts of the world.

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 ILO report cited instances in which 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, and neighboring 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."

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is the fact that so many forced laborers are children as young as 6 or 7. In many parts of the world, impoverished families sell their offspring into domestic service or to other employers. Only rarely do these children get an education or enjoy even basic human rights.

Laws against slavery are important, but forced labor can crop up in one form or another wherever people are desperate and impoverished. Stories of involuntary servitude illustrate the essential link between human rights and economic opportunity. No human rights battle will ever be completely won as long as people are still so impoverished and desperate that they will sell themselves or their children.

Reports of modern-day slavery sting the conscience of civilization. They should also spur it to action.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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