A Well-Kept Secret
“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude: slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”—Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
THE next time you put sugar in your coffee, think of Prevot, a Haitian who was promised a good job in another Caribbean country. Instead, he was sold for eight dollars.
Prevot shared the lot of thousands of his enslaved countrymen who are forced to cut sugarcane for six or seven months for little or no money. These captives are held in crowded, filthy conditions. After their belongings are taken, they are handed machetes. To obtain food, they must work. If they attempt to escape, they may be beaten.
Consider the case of Lin-Lin, a girl from Southeast Asia. She was 13 when her mother died. A job placement agency bought her from her father for $480, promising her a good job. The price paid for her was termed “an advance on her earnings”—a sure way to keep her tied to her new owners for good. Instead of being given a decent job, Lin-Lin was taken to a brothel, where clients pay the owner $4 an hour for her. Lin-Lin is virtually a prisoner, for she cannot leave until her debt is paid. This includes her cost to the brothel owner in addition to interest and expenses. If Lin-Lin refuses to comply with her employer’s wishes, she might be beaten or tortured. Worse still, if she tries to escape, she might be killed.
Liberty for All?
Most people think that slavery no longer exists. Indeed, after numerous conventions, declarations, and acts, it has been officially declared abolished in most countries. Loathing for slavery is strongly professed everywhere. National laws ban slavery, and its abolition is enshrined in international instruments—notably Article 4 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, cited above.
Yet, slavery is alive and flourishing—even though to some it is a well-kept secret. From Phnom Penh to Paris, from Mumbai to Brasília, millions of our fellow humans—men, women, and children—are forced to live and work as slaves or in slavelike conditions. London-based Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest monitor of forced labor, puts the number of people in bondage in the hundreds of millions. Indeed, there may be more slaves in the world today than ever before!
Granted, the familiar images of shackles, whips, and auctions are not typical of modern-day slavery. Forced labor, servile marriage, debt bondage, child labor, and often prostitution are just some of the more pronounced contemporary forms of slavery. Slaves might be concubines, camel jockeys, cane cutters, carpet weavers, or builders of roads. True, the vast majority are not sold at a public auction, but they are really no better off than were their predecessors. In some cases their lives are even more tragic.
Who become slaves? How do they become slaves? What is being done to help them? Is the total abolition of slavery in sight?
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WHAT IS MODERN SLAVERY?
This is a question that even the United Nations has difficulty answering after years of effort. One definition of slavery is that formulated by the 1926 Slavery Convention, which stated: “Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.” Still, the term is open to interpretation. According to journalist Barbara Crossette, “slavery is a label applied to low-wage workers in the garment and sportswear industries abroad and sweatshops in American cities. It is invoked to condemn the sex industry and prison labor.”
Mike Dottridge, the director of Anti-Slavery International, believes that “as slavery seems to take new forms—or as the word is applied to more conditions—there is a danger that its meaning will be diluted or even diminished.” He feels that “slavery is identified by an element of ownership or control over another’s life.” It includes coercion and restriction of movement—the fact that “someone is not free to leave, to change an employer.”
A. M. Rosenthal, writing in The New York Times, notes: “The slaves live slave lives—murderous labor, rape, hunger, torture, the totality of degradation.” He added: “Fifty dollars buys a slave, so it really does not matter [to the owners] how long they survive before their bodies are thrown into some river.”