Archive for the ‘Mauretania’ Category

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

August 1, 2020

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.

Hope Not Hate on Government Blocking of Anti-Slavery Legislation

March 25, 2015

The anti-racist, anti-Fascist and anti-religious extremism organisation, Hope Not Hate, has this important piece about the Coalition’s stance on migrant slavery in the UK today, Which side of history will Britain be on slavery? Today is the International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but the article also reminds us that there are 36 million people in slavery around the world today, including, odiously, 13,000 migrant servants living here in the UK.

The article discusses how the Coalition voted out the Lords’ amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill. These included the rights for migrant domestic workers to leave the employers. Four years ago this same coalition refused to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s Convention, which would also have allowed migrant servants to leave their employers. Karen Bradey, the government’s minister for modern slavery and organised crime last week again refused appeals for the government to ratify it.

Last year, Hope Not Hate, Justice 4 Domestic Workers, KALAYAAN, and UNITE the Union handed in a petition and postcards to David Cameron requesting him to end the slavery of domestic migrant workers in Britain. He has not done so.

The article concludes with the following appeal:

16,000 people are now asking for justice to be done and for parliament to bring back HOPE for domestic workers turned modern day slaves in the UK.

Today, the Modern Slavery Bill bounces back to the Lords for consideration of Commons’ unforgivable changes. If not today, on the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery, then when will this government decide to be on the right side of history and put their deeds where their words are?

Please take to social media and remind Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of both houses that you would not want to be #ChainedToYourBoss and thus help migrant domestic workers in the UK regain their freedom and HOPE.

The article can be read at: http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/blog/nick/which-side-of-history-will-britain-be-on-slavery-4343.

This is a vitally important issue. The commemoration of slavery and the slave trade is a contentious and controversial topic. It is one that has strongly demanded by Black and civil rights activists, who were horrified and disgusted by what they saw as the British’ failure to confront this aspect of the country’s past. Many towns have organised displays and exhibitions charting their involvement in the slave trade. Liverpool Museum had a gallery devoted to it, and in 1995 Bristol Museum held an exhibition, A Respectable Trade, about Bristol’s participation. It took it’s name partly from the title of a book by the writer of historical fiction, Philippa Gregory, then being shown as a Sunday night drama series on the Beeb. Other countries apart from Britain have also put own their own slavery exhibitions. Nantes in Britanny also put on an exhibition on their part in the French slave trade, called ‘L’Annees du Memoire’.

The problem of slavery in the modern world was also the subject of a book published in the 1990s, Disposable People. This covered the various types of bondage across the world, from Brazil, Mauretania in Africa, the logging camps and mining towns in Thailand and south-east Asia, and Arab countries. The author pointed out that slavery was often disguised as long-term indentured contracts. Those caught in it including labourers, miners, loggers and prostitutes. The book was called ‘Disposable People’, because that was the attitude of the slavers to the people they owned and exploited. They were there to be used, and then discarded without a qualm when they had no further use for them. And their lives are very, very cheap. There are sections in the book where you need a very strong stomach.

And slavery has crept back into Europe through legislation that binds domestic workers – servants – to their masters when they come to Britain. Under this legislation, the servants come under their masters’ passports, and thus are bound to them. As a result, thousands of domestic servants have found themselves kept as virtual slaves by their employers. They have no rights or control over their conditions, and may be beaten and abused as their masters please. The book describes the cases of a number of migrant domestic workers, who found themselves forced into slavery through this system in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, giving the estimated number of slaves thus kept in Paris.

William Wilberforce, the 18th century campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade, is something of a cause celebre amongst some Tories. He was an evangelical Christian, whose great faith moved him to campaign tireless against the brutalisation and exploitation of African slaves. He was also a High Tory, who believed in laissez faire capitalism. He thus appealed to them as an example of Conservative humanitarianism. One of the former members of John Major’s cabinet wrote a biography of Wilberforce a few years ago, though I can’t remember which one.

The Coalition’s stance on outlawing modern slavery in the UK shows just how far their sympathies with Wilberforce’s campaign really extend: not very. And the rise in the numbers of people enslaved around the world is alarming. When Disposable People was written, there was an estimated 20 million people in slavery. According to the Hope Not Hate article, it’s now risen to 36 million. Previous works on slavery in the modern world, while not being complacent, had considered that it was gradually dying out. One of the presidents of Nigeria, according to one book I read, had a particular type of facial scarring that in tradition Nigerian society indicated slave status. Similarly, the hereditary slaves in traditional forms of bondage, such as in Mauretania, were likely to be the best treated and valued, compared to the labourers trapped in more modern forms. It’s revolting and horrifying that slavery has returned, including the sale of women and girls for sex slavery by the jihadis of ISIS.

It’s clearly going to be a long time, and require a great deal of international effort, before slavery is ever truly eradicated and all of Earth’s people can stand together as free men and women. There’s only so much that can be done by one country. But Britain can start by breaking the chains of migrant domestic workers. They can and should be allowed to leave abusive masters.

Karen Bradey, the minister, who turned down this legislation on behalf of Cameron and Clegg’s government, used to be one of Sir Alan Sugar’s two supervising minions on The Apprentice. She made a speech a little while ago talking about the struggle women have to be taken seriously in business. She’s right, but her speech was a bit rich coming from her. She started her career working for the porn and press baron, and former owner of Channel 5, Richard ‘Dirty’ Desmond. Clearly her demand for respect for women in business doesn’t extend to those further down the scale, and their male colleagues, who wish to escape abuse.