Slaves for sale: young, sturdy, cheap, disposable!
"There's a land that is fairer than day, And by faith we shall see it afar. For the Father waits over the way, To prepare us a dwelling place there. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore, In the sweet by and by; And our spirits shall sorrow no more". J.P Webster 1867.
Hymns like these reassured the four million slaves at that time, toiling in America's plantations, ploughing and hoeing, harvesting the cane, the tobacco, and picking the cotton for the slave-holders. Throughout the beatings and abuse, these hymns gave them hope - a fragile hope - that things would change one day. Then, on that 'beautiful shore', they would be valued for who they really were. Not as muscle power, mustered at the whim of the task-masters. As human beings instead. But before that "sweet by and by" arrived, some slaves resolved to wait no longer. They wanted the 'sweet land of liberty' there and then. They watched the slave-holders and waited for their opportunity. While the white owners were in-doors, carousing with their young black chattels, fornicating wantonly under the cool, crisp, bedsheets, swallowed up in debauchery.... Desire and lust taking over.... As vigilence falls away.... That was the time!
Crossing the river:
In the dark shadows, along the furrows in the fields, the slaves slithered. Low through cotton bushes, along rows of tobacco, hidden by the sugarcane. Field after field: plantation after plantation. Walking through the night, hiding from the burning mid-day sun, until they reached that beautiful shore: the great Mississippi River. The River that would give them back their lives. They would cross to that land, heading North. To a land that possibly - just possibly - would yield up freedom. From the northern bank, they'd take the 'human railroad': that network of resistance-fighters, guiding them to safe houses along the way, hidden from sheriffs seeking 'those damn runnaways'.
And so the trickle turned into a stream and the stream became a flood of slaves seeking freedom. Many boarded that railroad. Indeed, so many that slavery began to loosen its shackles. The railroad to emancipation. Yes, both Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce were seminal in this freedom trail. But don't believe the history books: while the white men played their part, it was the slaves themselves who took that dangerous trek to freedom. White law-makers in Congress later changed the law(1863), with a proclamation: from henceforth, slaves were to be: "forever free of their servitude".
But the rest of us were lax. We lost our vigilence, believing that words were enough. But words do not change the world. We let things take their course, we believed in that "fore-ever". We were wrong. Slavery may have been officially abolished. But the slave-holder virus lived on, bringing about demoralising destruction and death.
The Least; the Lost; the Left-Overs:
Today, slaves exist throughout the world: East and West, North and South. Conservative estimates* put the number at twenty seven million. That is more than twice the total numbers of slaves exported from Africa and sent to the three Americas. But the slaves today no longer sing: all they can do is to scream in silence. These new slaves are scattered everywhere. Some are kept in secret (USA, France and Britain), others in the full light of day (Mauritania and Pakistan). Some are forced into slavery through debt (India); yet others are tricked into slavery with false promises (Thailand and Brazil), all the time while the eyes of government are closed to it. I myself have encountered slaves: in Sri Lanka (Tamils who work for wealthy Sinhalese people), Bangkok (girl-workers from NE Thailand, out on the streets plying their trade under the watchful eye of a minder), and in London (through a friend of mine who comes across African young people held in captivity). All of these are typical encounters where we, the public, are not sure what to do about it!
“Slavery is a booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves and when they are finished with their slaves, they just throw them away. This is the new slavery which focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about owning people like the old slavery, but about controlling them. People become completely disposable tools for making money”. (Kevin Bales: Disposable People, 2004).
You can buy a slave for next to nothing these days. The going rate: from $65 to $200. So why pay more? There are plenty to choose from. People are pouring into cities, searching for work in countries in the global south. Most will remain unemployed, but still search anywhere for a few hours' paid work. Many of these migrants are the victims of serious disruptions - wars, catastrophes, bad harvests, disease, and government organised population displacements (see my pieces on dams). Many more were turfed off the land by ruthless landowners, afraid that land reform would break up their enormous estates (see Cassandra Balchin, 'Slavery in Pakistan - How The Other Half Dies, Nation, Sept 5th 1988 and 2 futher articles - Sept 6th and Sept 8th). Kevin Bales highlights this process as the real pauperisation that brings down wages: other employers simply cannot compete against workers who labour without pay. These new slave traders recruit in bus and railway stations, watching for bright eyed youngsters, newly arrived and ready for work. These youngsters will get tricked, almost kidnapped and turned into slaves through threats or violence. Their first taste of the thugs - a whipping, a kicking, or having a dog turned on them will be enough to show what ‘disobedience’ brings about. And they soon learn there is no escape.
"Maids needed for Middle-East countries. Must be willing to travel with the family: to Paris, London, Geneva, New York. Respectable ladies only, from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia: all welcome".
Anywhere these oil-rich households park their families, away from the Arabian heat, each summer, you will find this new slavery. Across the cities of the West, human (female) slavery hides behind the heavy drapes of luxurious well-appointed, sound proofed apartments. This is the secret kind. Hard to identify, impossible to see what occurs high up behind the balconies. No one will hear the screams, as young foreign migrants get abused and beaten by angry mistresses or raped by arrogant husbands and sons.
Yara, an Ethiopian housemaid, lies bandaged in hospital after 'falling' from a 12th floor balcony. "Madam asked to hang out the clothes. Then she pushed me from behind," the 25 year old told Reuters. "Madam would tell me, 'I will spill hot oil on you'; "so I hid the oil. She would take a knife and threaten to kill me". New-York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims that a domestic worker in Lebanon dies there every week, out of 20,000 migrants. HRW says maids get beaten, raped; even murdered with no legal protection from employers, who confiscate their passports to stop them escaping. When workers get into distress they may ask their embassies to help, but the staff are overwhelmed. The Sri Lankan Embassy has just two people to handle some 80,000 Sri Lankan workers in Lebanon. New workers have little recourse if they are not paid. Tied by law to their employers, they forfeit any legal status if they run away.
Kevin Bales points out that having your passport taken away and not being able to change employers is key to the new slavery. Siddharth Kara has just published his study: Sex Trafficking: Inside The Business of Modern Slavery. He investigated massage parlours and apartments of Turin and Bangkok and talked with young prostitutes on Rome's Via Salaria. Moldova, Albania, Nepal, and to Bihat State in India. He tells of a 16-year old Maldovan girl who applied for a job as a house cleaner. Instead, she was raped and then trafficked to Italy. The 'bosses' told her she would have to pay back the $6,000 she owed them by working as a prostitute.
When she eventually escaped, she had syphilis, a damaged uterus and two broken fingers. Siddharth Kara tells about Salim, a villager from India, who explained how he bought children from poor families. He sent the boys to weave carpets around Varanasi and Badoi while the girls went to the sex trade in New Delhi and Badoi. $110 for a boy; $175 for a girl. Kara visited the brothels on Mumbai's Falkland Road, where an owner told him how he bought women from Nepal and Bangldesh. The brothel owner complained about police bribes he paid. For him, girls were becoming just too expensive. Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reckons that up to 50,000 Thai women were working illegally in Japan in 1994 as sex workers. Burmese women were doing the same in Thailand.
Both groups got promised work as domestics, cleaners, or dishwashers only to be brutalised and enslaved. Again, passports got taken away, under the eye of guards or brothel owners. Rape and violence is the precursor to their employment. In New York City, 30 Thai girls were locked in a room on the upper floors of a building used as a brothel. Iron bars sealed the windows and blocked the exits to the street below. During police raids, the women were herded into a secret basement room. The brothel owner said at her trial that Vietnamese and Chinese gangsters collected protection money and hunted down any escaped sex workers. The gangs owned chains of brothels and would rotate Thai women around in order to evade the law. People in the global north may feel disconcerted that this is happening in respectable neighbourhoods right under their noses. And little appears to be done about it. But this kind of trafficking has been widely reported for years. It is merely one of the many new types of slavery.
More significant is the kind of slavery that goes on in Brazil. Take Renaldo for example. He lived with his parents in rural Brazil and set out for Sao Paulo to look for work but without success. He then went to a small town, Minas Gerais, and met a gato who was recruiting for men to work at Mato Grosso. He told Renaldo they will be fed and paid good wages. The truck would bring them back to Mato Grosso each month to visit their families with their wages. The gato even gave the men money before they left to buy food to bring with them on the trip. The truck soon filled up with job seekers and left. It was a good journey; they were treated well! They finally arrived at the camp - a raw cerrado - fifty miles from anywhere. Renaldo: "It was terrible; the conditions were not good enough even for animals". Standing around the camp were men with guns. The gato told them: "You each owe me a lot of money. There is the cost of the trip and all the food you ate and the money I gave you before. Don't even think about leaving". Renaldo was trapped: he couldn't leave and he had to do exactly as he was told. He was one of the men who Kevin Bales interviewed at Mato Grosso. Bales points that the gatos take their indentity and labour cards, both of which are crucial in Brazil as proof of work. If the cards are not properly signed, the worker has no rights at all in law. One researcher told Bales: 'from this moment, the worker is dead as a citizen, and born as a slave'. "What the gatos want are workers who have given up, who will do anything that is asked of them": Kevin Bales. And that is where the guards and the men with rifles come in: they do what is necessary to turn workers like Renaldo into pliable slaves. The gatos want to squeeze as much work out of them as possible. Some workers Kevin Bales met had been in the camps for three months; others for up to two years.
These slave-holders know that it is more cost effective to discard them and recruit fresh workers to take their places, once they are physically worn out. They get thrown out penniless from the campsas soon as their productivity has fallen, and left to survive as best they can, often around towns like Mato Grosso, far away from their homes. The new slavery trades in disposables. After all, new, fitter young men are just as easy and cheap to recruit as the first batch. The gatos know that there are millions more in the shantytowns of Rio, Sao Paulo, Salvador, Manaus, all eager for work with supposed good conditions, enough food and the chance to return home each month.
The problem of slavery amongst the poorest in Brazil is enormous. No one knows the true extent of it. Officially, they acknowledge around 20,000. But then a large part of the Brazil interior is off-limits for officials. Here, slaves tend to be 'invisible'! Kevin Bales studied towns and villages around Mato Grosso. By 1996, around 10,000 men, women, and children were working in 200 charcoal camps there, not all of them slaves. But he says that is a fraction of those held in fake bondage in Brazil. There are other industries too in Brazil which use slaves. Slaves cut down the Amazon rain forest, they harvest the sugar-cane. They mine the gold and work as prostitutes. The rubber industry uses slaves. So too does cattle rearing. Indians are enslaved. Any poor Brazilian runs the risk of slavery. Yet like business entrepreneurs across the world, Brazilians can focus on the bottom line without ever knowing what really supports their excellent profit margin. Bales calls this: "the perfect example of the new slavery: faceless, temporary, highly profitable, legally concealed and completely ruthless". But this is a modern, democratic country with a vocal middle class population and a free press. Yet anti-slave activists know their work is dangerous. Rights workers, nuns, trade unionists have been murdered for challenging this business.
In China, too, you can buy as many fit young men as you may need for $65 a head. Christopher Bodeen of Associated Press (June 22, 2007) reports on kids being offered jobs as soon as they arrive at a city's train station. Sixteen year old Chen Cheng-gong, from Ruzhou (Henan province) jumped at the prospect of the well paid factory job offered by a friendly man at the Zhengzhou train station, as he got off the train there.
Twelve newly arrived boys were driven in a minivan and dumped at a isolated brickyard in Hongtong, Shanxi province. They were forced to haul loads of brick for twenty hours each day, without pay, given meager food rations, and regularly beaten. This slave scandal came to light in 2007. In spite of stringent laws against slavery, little gets done to punish the corrupt officials who condone it. This incident got wide coverage and the authorities were forced to act. The official Xinhua news agency reported the arrest of two labour bureau officials for condoning slave labour in the brick kilns in Shanxi province. Fifty-five people were investigated in 15 cases of kiln slavery.
Since then, more than 8,000 kilns and illegal coal mines in Shanxsi and Henna provines have been raided and 591 workers freed. About 160 kiln bosses have been arrested. A village party secretary was expelled from the party after his son was found operating a kiln with 31 slaves working under cruel conditions. These investigations got sparked off by parents searching the southern Shanxi mountains for their missing sons. One group of 400 fathers circulated a letter online sabout a thousand youngsters who'd been abducted, amid official indifference. The state media kept the scandal alive until Shanxi Governor Yu Youjun made a public apology. Were the culprits punished? Who knows? Slavery exists all over over China: yet no one admits to it. The country is so large and labour is so cheap, it is not difficult. And the profits can enormous.
Debt bondage is the vilest and most frequent cause of slavery in the world. A debt of a few dollars can cause a family to be enslaved down through generations. Some work in the brick kilns of Pakistan. All 7,000 of them, that produce 65 billion (cheap) bricks each year. With 15 to 35 families at each kiln, there are around 150,000-200,000 families working in them, estimates Kevin Bales, making a possible workforce of 750,000 people. Many are the landless peasants driven off the land after partition. Recent estimates suggest that a third of all farmland is owned in Pakistan by 0.5% of landlords: huge plantations, many of them in use during the African slave diaspora. Today, there are about 15 million landless peasants in the country. Bereft of other options and often homeless, these would be peasants sold themselves into debt bondage to the brick kiln owners. The owners keep the accounts; so the slaves never know exactly howe much of their debt they pay back at any time. Dishonesty is rife. Of course, not all kiln workers are slaves. Yet the leader of the Brick Kiln Workers Union admitted to Kevin Bales that only a portion of owners were dishonest: he thought about 30 or 40 percent of them cheated and enslaved the workers. Their living conditions are disgusting. Cassandra Balchin says that: "unable to afford the small fees at a government clinic, kiln workers, living in crowded communal huts catch tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria, cholera, and diarrhoea - some of their children simply dying of cold in the winters". (see Ahmar Mustikhan's current NowPublic posting).
Debt bondage in India is far, far greater. India is thought to have more enslaved people than the total number of slaves in the rest of the world; about 16 million (but also India is making progress in tackling this problem). Kevin Bales points out that it occurs almost everywhere in India. There are millions of landless labourers who live in bondage, but hundreds of other jobs too: Tea picking, precious stone extracting, brick kilns, timber felling, stone breaking, sugar cane harvesting, firework factories, handicrafts, carpet weaving. Food production and selling, carrying and hauling, prostitution (sometimes husbands sell their newly married wives into bondage to pay for the wedding ceremony), even begging. In Tamil Nadu state, around 45,000 children work in factories as bonded labour in Sivakasi,; one of the highest concentrations of child labour in the world. Bales notes a study of 235 villages carried out in Uttar Pradesh where there were around 500,000 bonded labourers. In one place, a hundred bonded labourers were found in a locked tin shed (60 by 15 feet), with little food or water and no medical care. They were bonded because of debts of 600 rupees (plus transport costs to the building site). Jan Breman, too, has researched bonded Indian labour for more than thirty years (see his Footloose Labour in south Gujarat, 1996, The poverty regime in village India, 2009 and many more books.) Even the Indian government has been indicted for enslaving workers in its own National Project Construction Corporation!
But there have been excellent attempts at repatriating enslaved people in India - better than any other country - in spite of many schemes being riddled with corruption.
Then, as Paschen points out below, there's Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, in West Africa. There's little space here to discuss the chocolate bean trade, supported by slavery but the chocolate companies have woken up to it recently and are countering this trade.
What can be done:
Lots of things. Karl Marx once said: "if you want to change the world, first, you have to understand it".
There are groups around the world that struggle to help us understand the slave trade. Yet they are poorly supported. Anti-Slavery International, Free The Slaves (an organisation formed by Kevin Bales through doing his research), as well as Save Our Slaves (SOS). They could certainly do with our support. We can also lobby our politicians to be more active in taking action against people enslaved in our own countries. We can write to the media to remind people that so many people still live in slavery. That is just for starters:
Isn't it odd that animals, CDs, designer clothing, all get better protection than enslaved people? Property, too, gets more attention than human beings. Consider this: a counterfeiter who makes illicit Britney Spears CDs will be chased ruthlessly and get far harsher treatment from the music moguls than does anyone who uses slave labour. The World Trade Organisation 'protects' trade agreements yet remains silent on the world trade in slaves. Should we not point out to our representatives on WTO that they should cover legislation that bans the modern slave trade, if they are committed to fair trading as their charter says?
EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency) finances detectives to go out on the lookout for elephant tusk poachers so that they can get them arrested and charged with poaching. Are enslaved human beings any less valuable than elephant tusks? I think not. The United Nations is timid in its treatment of countries known to be using slavery, in spite of all its blah, blah, blahing on human rights and the dignity of all. We all have national ambassadors at the UN. Write to them. Complain to them they are not doing their job! Western governments are more ferocious with people who pirate software than they are with those who pirate slaves. Huge money is poured into tackling the drugs trade by the US Drug authorities. Yet almost nothing is spent on tackling the slave trade. Is that a reasonable set of values? I think not.
Finally, we need to prioritise slavery above all other forms of exploitation since it is the key driver to the whole labour market in the developing world. Wages are dirt poor higher up the labour market since, at times, employers compete directly with the labour of unpaid enslaved workers. Campaigners who want to improve conditions in so called 'sweatshops' should focus their attention on this major lever of capitalism that forces down wages, if they really want to make serious changes to the wages unskilled labour gets paid.
* Kevin Bales, in his book, Disposable People, has given this as a much lower estimate than others believe. Some put the figures at about 200 million. His four books are ground breaking research on the subject. Wikipedia says he is the world authority on the slave trade. Well worth reading.
Siddhart Kara: Sex Trafficking, Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, 2009.
Also Bridget Anderson: Britain's Secret Slaves, Anti-Sla. Int, 1993
Incidence of Bonded Labour in India, Nat Acad Admin. 1990
Carey Goldberg: Sex slavery; Thailand to New York, New York Times Sept 11 1995.
The Poverty Regime in village India, Jan Breman, 2009
Footloose Labour, Jan Breman, 1996.
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