‘Financial Times’ Review of Book on Real, Modern Slavery

This is another old clipping I’ve kept in my scrapbooks from the Financial Times, from May 29/30th 1999. It’s a review by their columnist, Ben Rogers, ‘Forced into human bondage’, of Kevin Bales’ Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global  Economy. This is another book that the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol had in its library. It’s an excellent book, but obviously very, very grim reading in its truly harrowing accounts of the brutality meted out to real, enslaved people across the world. I’m posting the review here because, while Britain and America are re-evaluating the legacy of slavery following the Black Lives Matter protests, real slavery and its horrors still exist around the world and I am afraid that this is being overshadowed by the debates over historic European slavery.

Rogers begins his review with the subtitled ‘Slavery today may be illegal, but it is still rife’. The review then goes on

It is tempting to think of slavery as a thing of the past. Its legacy lives on, disfiguring relations between Black and Whites everywhere, but surely the practice itself has gone?

This sober, well-researched, pioneering study shows that this, alas, is far from the case. Bales, an American social scientist who teaches in London at the Roehampton Institute, is careful to distinguish slavery from other forms of exploitation: the Pakistani child labourer, the Burmese agricultural worker, although paid a subsistence wage, are not necessarily slaves. Nevertheless, he argues that there are still, on a conservative estimate, perhaps 27m slaves in the world today – a population greater than that of Canada.

Most are located in the Indian subcontinent where they work as bonded labourers, but they exist in almost every country in the world. Paris harbours as many as 3,000 household slaves, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab states many more. In the Dominican Republic, enslaved Haitians harvest the sugar that we eat. In Brazil, child prostitutes are forced to service the miners of the metals we use.

Of course, modern slavery is different from the old variety practised in ancient Athens or the American South. But in certain respects, Bales persuasively argues, the new variety is worse. In the traditional version, slave holders owned their slaves, who were almost always of a different race or religion from their masters; slaves were relatively expensive “capital” goods and usually kept up for life. Nowadays legal ownership is outlawed in every country of the world (Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, after all, states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude”), so modern slavery is disguised and “ownership” is replaced by manipulative debt bondage or fictive long-term “contracts”. Modern slaves tend to be taken from the same ethnic group as their holders and, because they are cheap, they are often used for only months or a few years before being discarded. Another difference is the size of the profit slaves produce. Agricultural bonded labourers in India generate not 5 per cent, as did slaves in the American South, but over 50 per cent profit per year for the slave holder; a Thai brothel owner can make 800 per cent on a new teenage girl.

To illustrate the nature of the new slavery, Bales has travelled around the world to investigate five cases in detail (often at some risk to himself): that of an enslaved prostitute in Ubon Ratchitani, Thailand; a water carrier in Mauritania; charcoal burners in the camps in Matto Grosso do Sul, Brazil; brickmakers in the Punjab, Pakistan; and bonded agricultural labourers in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The cases varied in significant ways. Ironically the one that most resembles old-style slavery – that of the water carrier from Mauritania – proves perhaps to be the least vicious. Slavery in Mauritania represents a lightly disguised continuation of a centuries-old practice; there slaves are kept for life and many slave families have been working for the same masters for generations. The cruellest example, by contrast, is provided by “Siri” the Thai prostitute, who was sold into slavery by her parents aged 14. Her debts to her owners are manipulate to ensure that she will continue to work until she is too tired or ill to be profitable.

Despite the differences, however, two continuities run through all the cases Bales so  graphically describes. In every case the worker is tricked or forced into bondage; in every case he or she is provided with the barest means of subsistence and sometimes not even that. In the charcoal camps of Brazil the men are often denied medication and left to die – on the principle that it is cheaper to acquire a new worker than repair an old one.

The western world has been slow to recognise the problem of the new slavery – in part because it is carefully disguised. The slave holders hide it from their government, governments hide it from the international community. The result is that, unlike, say, torture or censorship, slavery has yet to become a major human rights issue. The main international organisation dedicated to the abolition of slavery, Anti-Slavery International, has only 6,000 members. And without grass roots pressure, the World Bank, IMF and national governments are not inclined to show much concern.

“What country,” as Bales asks, “has been sanctioned by the UN for slavery? Where are the UN inspection teams charged with searching out slave labour? Who speaks for the slaves in the International Court of Justice? Governments and business are more likely to suffer international penalties today for counterfeiting a Michael Jackson CD than for using slaves.”

Modern slaves face the same conditions as the poor of the third world – they are the victims of industrialisation, population explosion and government corruption. Where labour is abundant, wages low, bribery rife, workers often face a stark choice between enslavement and starvation. Slavery, however, calls for its own particular solutions. Bales shows how strict enforcement of existing laws combined with programmes aimed at enabling slaves to set up on their own, have had some effect in diminishing debt bondage in northern India – although, as he reminds us, unless steps are taken slavery is set to grow.

Incredibly, Bales’ study is about the first to explore slavery in its modern international guise. The picture it offers remains patchy, given the limited resources at Bales’ disposal. He makes much of the west’s role in aiding and abetting slavery, yet most of the cases he studies belongs to local economies. This remains, however, a convincing and moving book. One can only hope that it will draw some attention to the terrible phenomenon it describes.

Although this was written 21 years ago, I’ve no doubt that it’s still acutely relevant and the situation has got worse. Since then there have been a series of scandals involving the enslavement of migrant workers in Britain and eastern European women trafficked into sex slavery. And, as the book Falling Off the Edge, shows very clearly, poverty around the world and the consequent exploitation of the poor has got much worse due to neoliberalism and globalisation. One of the programmes due to be shown on the Beeb – but I can’t remember whether it’s on TV or radio – is an examination of global terrorism. One of the groups looked at are Maoist terrorists in India. They’re a horrifically violent outfit, but they’re the result, according to Falling Off the Edge, of the horrific poverty and exploitation foisted upon the agricultural workers of central India.

And then there’s the increasing poverty and mounting debts of the British poor, thanks to Thatcherite welfare cuts, wage freezes and the replacement of loans for welfare payments and services. I wonder how long before this morphs into something very much like debt bondage over here.

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One Response to “‘Financial Times’ Review of Book on Real, Modern Slavery”

  1. con Says:

    Is this a new or an old manipulative technique? Like focusing on alleged historical sex crimes while ignoring wholesale present day sex crimes in north of England? Major focus on historical slavery in order to ignore huge upsurge in modern day slavery? Manipulation through the media is standard.

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