1999 Currently more than 27 million people are enslaved.
Currently more than 27 million people are enslaved.
Photo by Sebastiao Salgado
detail from Gold Diggers, Brazil copyright 1998 Sabastiao Salgado
Slavery may be illegal today in every country, but it exists and is actually growing rapidly throughout the world. But unlike the slaves of the past, the new slaves are not seen as long-term investments. Instead, slaveholders view them as cheap, requiring little care, and in the end, disposable. But one thing remains the same: violence. People are still taken by force and held against their will through fear. Take a look at the economic and social forces that sustain slavery, from the corruption of local governments to the complicity of multinational corporations. See just who benefits from the incredible profits of the new slavery -- and how we all lose, in the end. See how the lives of these slaves are bound by our own through our purchase of slave-made products or mutual funds that invest in companies using slave labor. Learn how individuals and governments can combat slavery; take on successful antislavery actions encouraged by international and local organizations.
following is excerpted from the first chapter of Kevin Bales' new book,
Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1999. I sincerely urge you to do much
more than read it: share these ideas with others and take concrete
action through the conscious choices you make. Here are some additional action initiatives that can
make an important difference in all our lives.
The French countryside in summer lives up to its reputation. As we sit outdoors in little villages about one hundred miles from Paris, the breeze brings us the scent of apples from the orchard next door. I have come here to meet Seba, a newly freed slave. She is a handsome and animated young woman of twenty-two, but as she tells me her story she draws into herself, smoking furiously, trembling, and then the tears come.
I was raised by my grandmother in Mali, and when I was still a little girl a woman my family knew came and asked her if she could take me to Paris to care for her children. She told my grandmother that she would put me in school and that I would learn French. But when I came to Paris I was not sent to school, I had to work everyday. In their house I did all the work; I cleaned the house, cooked the meals, cared for the children, and washed and fed the baby. Every day I started work before 7:00 a.m. and finished about 11 p.m.; I never had a day off. My mistress did nothing; she slept late and then watched television or went out.
One day I told her that I wanted to go to school. She replied that she had not brought me to France to go to school but to take care of her children. I was so tired and run-down. I had problems with my teeth; sometimes my cheek would swell and the pain would be terrible. Sometimes I had stomachaches, but when I was ill I still had to work. Sometimes when I was in pain I would cry, but my mistress would shout at me.
I slept on the floor in one of the children's bedrooms; my food was their leftovers. I was not allowed to take food from the refrigerator like the children. If I took food she would beat me. She often beat me. She would slap me all the time. She beat me with the broom, with kitchen tools, or whipped me with electric cable. Sometimes I would bleed; I still have marks on my body.
Once in 1992 I was late going to get the children from school; my mistress and her husband were furious with me and beat and then threw me out on the street. I had nowhere to go; I didn't understand anything, and I wandered on the streets. After some time her husband found me and took me back to their house. There they stripped me naked, tied my hands behind my back, and began to whip me with a wire attached to a broomstick. Both of them were beating me at the same time. I was bleeding a lot and screaming, but they continued to beat me. Then she rubbed chili pepper into my wounds and stuck it in my vagina. I lost consciousness.
Sometime later one of the children untied me. I lay on the floor where they had left me for several days. The pain was terrible but no one treated my wounds. When I was able to stand I had to start work again, but after this I was always locked in the apartment. They continued to beat me.
Seba was finally freed when a neighbor, after hearing the sounds of abuse and beating, managed to talk to her. Seeing her scars and wounds, the neighbor called the police and the French Committee Against Modern Slavery (CCEM), who brought a case and took Seba into their care. Medical examinations confirmed that she had been tortured.
Today Seba is well cared for, living with a volunteer family. She is receiving counseling and is learning to read and write. Recovery will take years, but she is a remarkably strong young woman. What amazed me was how far Seba still needs to go. As we talked I realized that though she was twenty-two and intelligent, her understanding of the world was less developed than the average five-year-old's. For example, until she was freed she had little understanding of time -- no knowledge of weeks, months, or years. For Seba there was only the endless round of work and sleep. She knew that there were hot days and cold days, but never learned that the seasons follow a pattern. If she ever knew her birthday she had forgotten it, and she did not know her age. She is baffled by the idea of "choice." Her volunteer family tries to help her make choices, but she still can't grasp it....
If Seba's case were unique it would be shocking enough, but Seba is one of perhaps 3,000 household slaves in Paris. Nor is such slavery unique to that city. In London, New York, Zurich, Los Angeles and across the world, children are brutalized as household slaves. And they are just one small group of the world's slaves.
Slavery is a booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves. And when they've finished with their slaves, they just throw these people away. This is the new slavery, which focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money.
On more than ten occasions I woke early in the morning to find the corpse of a young girl floating in the water by the barge. Nobody bothered to bury the girls. They just threw their bodies in the river to be eaten by the fish.
This was the fate of young girls enslaved as prostitutes in the gold mining towns of the Amazon, explained Antonia Pinto, who worked there as a cook and procurer. While the developed world bemoans the destruction of the rain forests, few people realize that slave labor is used to destroy them. Men are lured to the region by promises of riches in gold dust, and girls as young as eleven are offered jobs in the offices and restaurants that serve the mines. When they arrive in the remote mining areas, the men are locked up and forced to work in the mines; the girls are beaten, raped and put to work as prostitutes. Their "recruitment agents" are paid a small amount for each body, perhaps $150. The "recruits" have become slaves -- not through legal ownership, but through the final authority of violence. The local police act as enforcers to control the slaves. As one young woman explained, "Here the brothel owners send the police to beat us . . . if we flee they go after us, if they find us they kill us, or if they don't kill us they beat us all the way back to the brothel."
The brothels are incredibly lucrative. The girl who "cost" $150 can be sold for sex up to ten times a night and bring in $10,000 per month. The only expenses are payments to the police and a pittance for food. If a girl is a troublemaker, runs away, or gets sick, she is easy to get rid of and replace. Antonia Pinto described what happened to an eleven-year-old girl when she refused to have sex with a miner: "After decapitating her with his machete, the miner drove around in his speedboat, showing off her head to the other miners, who clapped and shouted their approval."
As the story of these girls shows, slavery has not, as most of us have been led to believe, ended. To be sure, the word slavery continues to be used to mean all sorts of things, and all too often it has been applied as an easy metaphor. Having just enough money to get by, receiving wages that barely keep you alive, may be called wage slavery, but it is not slavery. Sharecroppers have a hard life, but they are not slaves. Child labor is terrible, but it is not necessarily slavery.
In spite of this difference between the new and the old slavery, I think everyone would agree that what I am talking about is slavery: the total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation. Modern slavery hides behind different masks, using clever lawyers and legal smoke screens, but when we strip away the lies, we find someone controlled by violence and denied all of their personal freedom to make money for someone else. As I traveled around the world to study the new slavery, I looked behind the legal masks and I saw people in chains. Of course, many people think there is no such thing as slavery anymore, and I was one of those people just a few years ago.
I first encountered the vestiges of the old slavery when I was four years old. What happened is one of my strongest memories. It was the 1950s in the American South and my family was having dinner in a cafeteria. As we started down the serving line I saw another family standing behind a chain, waiting as others moved through with their trays. With the certainty of a four-year-old, I knew that they had arrived first and should be ahead of us. the fairness of first come, first served had been drummed into me. So I unhooked the chain and said, "You were here first, you should go ahead." The father of this African American family looked down at me with eyes full of feeling, just as my own father came up and put his hand on my shoulder. Suddenly the atmosphere was thick with unspoken emotion. Tension mixed with bittersweet approval as both fathers grappled with the innocent ignorance of a child who had never heard of segregation. No one spoke, until the black father said, "That's OK, we're waiting on someone; go ahead."
My parents were not radicals, but they had taught me the value of fairness and equal treatment. They believed that the idea of our equality was one of the best things about America, and they never approved of the racism of segregation. But sometimes it takes a child's simplicity to cut through the weight of custom. The intensity of that moment stayed with me, though it was years before I began to understand what those two sets of parents were feeling. As I grew up I was glad to see such blatant segregation coming to an end. The idea that there might still be actual slavery -- quite apart from segregation -- never crossed my mind. Everyone knew that in the United States slavery had ended in 1865.
Of course, the gross inequalities in American society brought the slavery of the past to mind. I realized that the United States, once a large-scale slave society, was still suffering from a botched emancipation program. Soon after Abraham Lincoln's celebrated proclamation, Jim Crow laws and oppression took over to keep ex-slaves from economic and political power. I came to understand that emancipation was a process, not an event -- a process that still had a way to go. As a young social researcher, I generally held jobs concerned with the residue of this unfinished process: I studied bad housing, health differences between the races, problems in integrated schools, and racism in the legal system. But I still saw all this as the vestiges of slavery, as problems that were tough but not intractable.
It was only after I moved to England in the early 1980s that I became aware of real slavery. At a large public event I came across a small table set up by Anti-Slavery International. I picked up some leaflets in passing, and I was amazed by what I read. There was no flash-of-light experience, but I developed a gnawing desire to find out more. I was perplexed that this most fundamental human right was still not assured -- and that no one seemed to know or care about it. Millions of people were actively working against the nuclear threat, against apartheid in South Africa, against famine in Ethiopia, yet slavery wasn't even on the map. The more this realization dug into me, the more I knew I had to do something. Slavery is an obscenity. It is not just stealing someone's labor; it is the theft of an entire life. It is more closely related to the concentration camp than to questions of bad working conditions.
There seems nothing to debate about slavery: it must stop. My question became: What can I do to bring an end to slavery? I decided to use my skills as a social researcher, and I embarked on the project that led to this book.
For several years I collected every scrap of information I could find about modern slavery. I went to the United Nations and the British Library; I trawled through the International Labour Office and visited human rights organizations and charities. I talked to anthropologists and economists. Getting useful, reliable information on slavery is very difficult. Even when shown photographs and affidavits, nations' officials deny its existence. Human rights organizations in contrast, want to expose the existence of slavery. They report what they are told by the victims of slavery, and it is their business to counter government denials with evidence of widespread slavery. Who and what can we believe?
My approach was to pull together all the evidence I could find, country by country. When someone gave reasons why a number of people were in slavery, I took note. When two people independently stated they had good reasons to think that there was a certain amount of slavery, I began to feel more convinced. Sometimes I found that researchers were working on slavery in two different parts of the same country without knowing about each other. I looked at every report I could find and asked, "What can I feel sure about? Which numbers do I trust?" Then I added up what I had found, taking care to be conservative. If I had any doubts about a report, I left it out of my calculations. It's important to remember that slavery is a shadowy, illegal enterprise, so statistics are hard to come by. I can only make a good guess at the numbers.
This number is much smaller than the estimates put forward by some activists, who give a range as high as 200 million, but it is the number I feel I can trust; it is also the number that fits my strict definition of slavery. The biggest part of that 27 million, perhaps 25 to 20 million, is represented by bonded labor in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Bonded labor or debt bondage happens when people give themselves into slavery as security against a loan or when they inherit a debt from a relative. Otherwise slavery tends to be concentrated in Southeast Asia, northern and western Africa, and parts of South America (but there are some slaves in almost every country in the world, including the United States, Japan, and many European countries). There are more slaves alive today than all the people stolen from African in the times of the transatlantic slave trade. Put another way, today's slave population is greater than the population of Canada, and six times greater than the population of Israel.
These slaves tend to be used in simple, nontechnological, and traditional work. The largest group work in agriculture. But slaves are used in many other kinds of labor: brickmaking, mining or quarrying, prostitution, gem-working and jewelry-making, cloth and carpet making, and domestic service; they clear forests, make charcoal, and work in shops. Much of this work is aimed at local sale and consumption, but slave-made goods reach into homes around the world. Carpets, fireworks, jewelry, and metal-goods made by slave labor, as well as grains, sugar, and other foods harvested by slaves, are imported directly to North America and Europe. In addition, large international corporations, acting through subsidiaries in the developing world, take advantage of slave labor to improve their bottom line and increase the dividends to their shareholders.
But the value of slaves lies not so much in the particular products they make as in their sweat, in the volume of work squeezed out of them. Slaves are often forced to sleep next to their looms or brick kilns; some are even chained to their work tables. All their waking hours may be turned into working hours. In our global economy one of the standard explanations that multinational corporations give for closing factories in the "first world" and opening them in the "third world" is the lower labor cost. Slavery can constitute a significant part of these savings. No paid workers, no matter how efficient, can compete economically with unpaid workers -- slaves
In the new slavery race means little. In the past, ethnic and racial differences were used to explain and excuse slavery. These differences allowed slaveholders to make up reasons why slavery was acceptable, or even a good thing for the slaves. The otherness of the slaves made it easier to employ the violence and cruelty necessary for total control. This otherness could be defined in almost any way -- a different religion, tribe, skin color, language, custom, or economic class. Many of these differences could be and were used to separate the slaves from the slaveholders. Maintaining these differences required tremendous investment in some very irrational ideas -- and the crazier the justifying idea, the more vehemently it was insisted upon. The American Founding Fathers had to go through moral, linguistic, and political contortions to explain why their "land of the free" was only for white people. Many of them knew that by allowing slavery they were betraying their most cherished ideals. They were driven to it because slavery was worth a lot of money to a lot of people in North America at the time. But they went to the trouble of devising legal and political excuses because they felt that had to justify their economic decisions morally.
Today the morality of money overrides other concerns. Most slaveholders feel no need to explain or defend their chosen method of labor recruitment and management. Slavery is a very profitable business, and a good bottom line is justification enough. Freed of ideas that restrict the status of slave to others, modern slaveholders use other criteria to choose slaves. Indeed they enjoy a great advantage: being able to enslave people from one's own country helps keep costs down. Slaves in the American South in the nineteenth century were very expensive, in part because they originally had to be shipped thousands of miles from Africa. When slaves can be gotten from the next town or region, transportation costs fall. The question isn't "Are they the right color to be slaves?" but "Are they vulnerable enough to be enslaved?" The criteria of enslavement today do not concern color, tribe, or religion; they focus on weakness, gullibility, and deprivation.
It is true that in some countries there are ethnic or religious differences between slaves and slaveholders. In Pakistan, for example, many enslave brickmakers are Christians while the slaveholders are Muslim. In India slave and slaveholder may be from different castes. In Thailand they may come from different regions of the country and are much more likely to be women. But in Pakistan there are Christians who are not slaves, in India members of the same caste who are free. Their caste or religion simply reflects their vulnerability to enslavement; it doesn't cause it. Only in one country, Mauritania, does the racism of the old slavery persist -- there black slaves are held by Arab slaveholders, and race is a key division. To be sure, some cultures are more divided along racial lines than others. Japanese culture strongly distinguishes the Japanese as different from everyone else, and so enslaved prostitutes in Japan are more likely to be Thai, Philippine, or European women -- although they may be Japanese. Even here, the key difference is not racial but economic: Japanese women are not nearly so vulnerable and desperate as Thais or Filipinas. And the Thai women are available for shipment to Japan because Thais are enslaving Thais. The same pattern occurs in the oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where Muslim Arabs promiscuously enslave Sri Lankan Hindus, Filipino Christians, and Nigerian Muslims. The common denominator is poverty, not color. Behind every assertion of ethnic difference is the reality of economic disparity. If all left-handed people in the world became destitute tomorrow, there would soon be slaveholders taking advantage of them. Modern slaveholders are predators keenly aware of weakness; they are rapidly adapting an ancient practice to the new global economy.
The concentration of land in the hands of an elite and its use of land to produce cash crops for export have made the poor more vulnerable. Consider the agricultural slave in debt bondage in India. The land, rather than labor, is at a premium today. India's population has boomed, currently totaling three times that of the United States in a country with one-third the space. For the first time in human history there is an absolute glut of potential slaves. The glut of potential workers means that free labor must regularly compete with slave, and the resulting pressure on agricultural wages pushes free laborers toward bondage. When free farmers run out of money, when a crop fails or a member of the family becomes ill and needs medicine, they have few choices. Faced with a crisis, they borrow enough money from a local landowners to meet the crisis, but having no other possessions, they must use their own lives as collateral. The slaveholders save by providing no regular maintenance, and they can cut off food and all support when the bonded laborer is unable work or is no longer needed.
Another major difference between the old and new slavery is in the profits produced by an enslaved laborer. Agricultural bonded laborers in India generate not 5 percent, as did slaves in the American South, but over 50 percent profit per year for the slaveholder. This high profit is due, in part, to the low cost of the slave (i.e., the small loan advanced), but even so it reflects the low returns on old-fashioned small-scale agriculture: indeed, almost all other forms of modern slavery are much more profitable.
The important thing to remember is that people are enslaved by
violence and held against their wills for purposes of exploitation..
A small percentage of slaves fall into a number of other readily identifiable kinds of slavery. These tend to be specific to particular geographical regions or political situations. A good example of slavery linked to politics is what is often called war slavery . This includes government-sponsored slavery, such as that found in Burma today. One major project is the natural gas pipeline that Burma is building in partnership with the U.S. old company UNOCAL, the French oil company Total and the Thai company PTT Exploration and Production. These three companies are often featured in international and global mutual investment funds. The Thai company, which is owned in part by the Thai government, is recommended by one mutual fund as a "family" investment. In the pipeline project thousands of enslaved workers, including old men, pregnant women, and children, are forced at gunpoint to clear land and build a railway next to the pipeline. War slavery is unique: this is slavery committed by the government, whereas most slavery happens in spite of the government.
In some parts of the Caribbean and in western Africa, children are given or sold into domestic service. They are sometimes called "restavecs." Ownership is not asserted, but strict control, enforced by violence, is maintained over the child. The domestic services performed by the enslaved child provide a sizable return on the investment in "upkeep." It is a culturally approved way of dealing with "extra" children; some are treated well, but for most it is a kind of slavery that lasts until adulthood.
Slavery can also be linked to religion, as with the Indian devadasi women or the children who are ritual slaves in Ghana. Several thousand girls and young women are given by their families as slaves to local fetish priests in southeastern Ghana, Togo, Benin, and southwestern Nigeria. In a custom very alien to Western sensibilities the girls are enslaved in order to atone for sins committed by members of their families, often rape. The girls may, in fact, be the products of rape, and their slavery is seen as a way of appeasing the gods for that or other crimes committed by their male relatives. Ghana's constitution forbids slavery, but the practice is justified on religious grounds by villagers and priests.
As can be seen from these cases, slavery comes in many
forms. Moreover, slavery can be found in virtually every country. A
recent investigation in Great Britain found young girls held in slavery
and forced to be prostitutes in Birmingham and Manchester. Enslaved
domestic workers have been found and freed in London and Paris. In the
United States farmworkers have been found locked inside barracks and
working under armed guards as field slaves. Enslaved Thai and Philippine
women have been freed from brothels in New York, Seattle, and Los
Angeles. This list could go on and on. Almost all of the countries where
slavery "cannot" exist have slaves inside their borders -- but, it must
be said, in very small numbers compared to the Indian subcontinent and
the Far East. The important point is that slaves constitute a vast
workforce supporting the global economy we all depend on.
Just how much does slave labor contribute to the global economy? Agricultural bonded laborers, after an initial loan (think of this as the purchase price) of around $50, generate up to 100 percent net profit for the slaveholders. If there are an estimated 18 million such workers, the annual profit generated would be on the order of $860 million, though this might be distributed to as many as 5 million slaveholders. If 200,000 women and children are enslaved as prostitutes, a not unreasonable guess, and if the financial breakdown found in Thai prostitution is used as a guide, then these slaves would generate a total annual profit of $10.5 billion.
If these sums are averaged to reflect a world population of 27 million slaves, the total yearly profit generated by slaves would be on the order of $13 billion. This is a very rough estimate. But we might put this sum into global perspective by noting that $13 billion is approximately equal to the amount the Dutch spent last year on tourism, or substantially less than the personal worth of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
It is most likely that slave-produced goods and goods assembled from slave-made components have the effect of increasing profits rather than just lowering consumer prices, as they are mixed into the flow of other products. I'd like to believe that most Western consumers, if they could identify slave-produced goods, would avoid them despite their lower price. But consumers do look for bargains, and they don't usually stop to ask why a product is so cheap. We have to face facts: by always looking for the best deal, we may be choosing slave-made goods without knowing what we are buying. Workers making computer parts or televisions in Indian can be paid low wages in part because food produced by slave labor is so cheap. This lowers the cost of the goods they make, and factories unable to compete with their prices close in North America and Europe. Slave labor anywhere threatens real jobs everywhere.
There are almost no economic controls on slaveholding and the slave trade. But bringing down criminals by investigating their finances and enforcing economic sanctions has been shown to be effective, yet these techniques are rarely applied to the crime of slavery.
The new slavery mimics the world economy by shifting away from ownership and fixed asset management, concentrating instead on control and use of resources or processes. Put another way, it is like the shift from the "ownership" of colonies in the last century to the economic exploitation of those same countries today without the cost and trouble of maintaining colonies. Transitional companies today do what European empires did in the last century -- exploit natural resources and take advantage of low-cost labor -- but without needing to take over and govern the entire country. Similarly, the new slavery appropriates the economic value of individuals while keeping them under complete coercive control -- but without asserting ownership or accepting responsibility for their survival. The result is much greater economic efficiency: useless and unprofitable infants, the elderly, and the sick or injured are dumped. Seasonal tasks are met with seasonal enslavement as in the case of Haitian sugarcane cutters. In the new slavery, the slave is a consumable item, added to the production process when needed but no longer carrying a high capital cost.
As jobs for life disappear from the world economy, so too does slavery for life. The economic advantages of short-tern enslavement far outweigh the costs of buying new slaves when needed.
In Europe and North America the police fight organized crime; in Thailand the police are organized crime. The same holds true for many parts of Africa and Asia: the state's monopoly on violence, the monopoly that should protect citizens, has been turned against them. With destitution, traditional systems of family or community support for the vulnerable collapse -- and in these countries they are not replaced with any effective state welfare measures. Without protection or alternatives, the poor become powerless, and the violent, without state intervention, become supremely powerful. Slavery blossoms in these circumstances.
The transfer of the
monopoly of violence from central government to local thugs is essential
if the new slavery is to take root and flourish. What normally brings it
about is the head-on collision of the modern and traditional ways of
life. Here those with the most firepower run the show and those without
weapons obey orders or disappear. The few local police have a choice:
cooperate with the thugs and make a profit, or attempt to enforce the
law and die. The result is lawlessness and terror.
Looking at the nature of the new slavery we see obvious themes: slaves are cheap and disposable; control continues without legal ownership; slavery is hidden behind contracts; and slavery flourishes in communities under stress. Those social conditions have to exist side by side with an economy that fosters slavery.
Slavery grows best in extreme poverty, so we can identify its economic as well a social preconditions. Being poor, homeless, a refugee, or abandoned can all lead to the desperation that opens the door to slavery, making it easy for the slaver to lay an attractive trap. And when slaves are kidnapped, they must lack sufficient power to defend themselves against that violent enslavement.
The new slavery is like a new disease for
which no vaccine exists. And this disease is SPREADING. We're facing an
epidemic of slavery that is tied through the global economy to our own
lives. If those whose rights are violated cannot find protection, they
are unlikely to accuse and fight those with guns and power. Such is the
case in many of the countries where slavery exists today. Hitting a
government in the pocketbook hard enough can make it change its ways. If
slavery stops being profitable, there is little motivation to enslave.
Slavery is a business. The surrounding community protects slavery
by custom or ignores it in fear.
What You Can Do to Stop Slavery