Today is the United Nations’ International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. It may seem strange to have to recognize a day for the eradication of the barbarous practice of slavery, but the fact is that there are more slaves today than at any previous time in history.
This may seem to be something of an anachronism because slavery has been outlawed in every country, with the last being Mauritania in 2007. Despite this long-overdue enlightenment, the New York Times estimates that 45 million people are trapped in some type of slavery as of 2016.
However, when Elbert Stewart, Chuck Hohm, and I wrote “Global Social Problems” in the 1990s, we cited the London-based Anti-Slavery International as estimating that there were “about 200,000,000” slaves world-wide at that time. The true figure probably lies somewhere between the two estimates, and the vast difference may be due to who is and who is not counted as a slave.
Because a good portion of modern slavery is due to human trafficking, which seems to have increased over the past two decades, it may be that slavery is more common than is currently documented.
Because the practice of slavery precedes recorded history, it is often difficult to discern its existence. In many parts of the world, conditions that would be considered slavery are merely part of accepted practice.
For example, many modern societies consider forced marriage to be a form of slavery. Some organizations hold that there is a very fine line between arranged marriages and “forced” marriages.
The American (and Western civilizations, in general) custom of allowing young people to choose their own mate (theoretically, for life) is simply unconscionable to traditional parents in countries like India, China, or Iran. In many households, it is thought to be the parents’ responsibility to choose an acceptable mate for children. In more modern households, this is often done after consultation with the children involved on both sides (potential husband and potential wife). But, that is not always the case, and the new bride and groom have no choice in the matter.
People forced into marriage may be required to engage in sexual activity with the partner or perform household or business chores without any compensation. Also, in many cultures there is the custom of requiring a “bride price” or “dowry,” and this can lead to buying and selling people into marriage.
Such systems are common throughout Africa and Asia (though not exclusive to those continents). Forced marriages also occur among immigrant groups in Europe, the Americas, and Australia.
It may be hard for modern Americans to understand these practices, but in some cases “capturing” a spouse is not only tolerated, but expected. In Ethiopia, seven of every 10 marriages begins with the abduction of the bride.
The practice of polygyny (a form of polygamy in which a man is allowed to have more than one wife) can also result in forced labor.
In one California city, a man from Saudi Arabia opened a convenience store and put his wife to work running the establishment. The man then returned to the Middle East, married a second wife, and opened a second store with the new wife as the proprietor. Then, he acquired a third wife, a fourth wife, a fifth wife, and so on until he had established a network of stores that could undercut prices because of no labor expense, and he established something akin to a regional monopoly.
This is why the International Labour Organization defines forced marriage as a form of modern-day slavery.
During the early days of the Industrial Revolution, children were commonly sold to factories as veritable slaves by parents who could not afford them. After the plight of these children was brought to public attention by writers (for example, Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”), the practice was gradually phased out. But, the system remains strong in many countries today.
In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, parents become indebted and their children pay the price. As in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, they are given over to the debt holder. In Thailand, thousands of children are sold by their families to work in the sweatshops of Bangkok or in its brothels.
In the Middle East, children are sold to factories that make carpets. The value of a carpet is often based on the number of knots tied per square inch. Years of observation reveal that a 5-year-old girl has slender fingers and is capable of tying more knots in a small space than adults or older children.
Often trickery, defined in the United States and other developed economies as “unfair labor practice,” is used to assure that people will work under conditions of slavery. In some countries, avoiding slavery is nearly impossible. Hungry and impoverished Haitians may travel to the other side of Hispaniola to work cutting sugar cane in the Dominican Republic. But, they run into debt to the company store where prices are so high that they may not be able to pay off their bills for many years.
In Saipan, part of the American commonwealth, Chinese workers are lured to factories that promise high wages. Saipan’s immigration laws allow for “foreign temporary contract workers,” and factory owners take advantage of that deviation from standard U.S. practice.
Upon arrival in Saipan, “guest workers” must surrender their passports and are then taken to factories that are surrounded by high fences and watched over by armed guards. They are given the promised wages, but they must purchase everything from the company store. There is even a charge for water and food beyond the one meal per day which is provided by the employer during the daily 12-hour shift.
At month’s end, the worker owes more to the store than he or she has earned in wages. Because that’s the case every month, the “temporary worker” becomes an unpaid lifetime slave. And, to add insult to injury, the goods produced by this “debt slavery” system can be labeled “Made in the U.S.A.”
This, of course, is the saddest part of the story. When we purchase these products, we become unwittingly complicit in a global scandal. And that is one of the factors that make this day of observation important.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.