Slavery is not just a prerogative of poverty-stricken third-world countries, it is also a current feature of the industrialized West. Despite vastly improved international labor regulations, a special United Nations antislavery work group in Geneva last week charged that many parts of the world are still afflicted by slave-like conditions, particularly among children. According to the London-based Anti-Slavery Society, Thailand and Italy are among the worst offenders.
An estimated 3.5 million children under the age of 14 are reportedly forced to work in Thailand, the majority of them with their families on farms. But Tim Bond, an investigator sponsored by the minority rights group, also maintained that thousands of children are openly bought and sold on a massive, professionally operated market to supply factories, brothels, and massage parlors in Bangkok.
More than 500 children are sold in the Thai capital every week between April and November, reported the British humanrights campaigner. Most of the child traffic originates from the northeastern part of the country, where farmers are faced with drought six months of the year.
Child brokers, notably in the squalid back allies around Bangkok's bustling railway district, buy or hire children, some of them as young as 8 years old, for $20 for a two-month agreement. To illustrate his point, Mr. Bond himself bought two boys, aged 12 and 13, from a woman dealer for $35. He then returned the children to their homes.
Most of the children are trafficked under agreements between their parents and employers. In one case, a 12-year-old Thai girl was sold by her parents to a Bangkok restaurant for $50. Three years later she became a prostitute in a hotel. Many never see their families again.
"The Thai police encourage such trafficking," asserted Mr. Bond. "From labor shops they receive an income in return for their silence. From brothels, they can take their pick for free. The government prefers not to know."
In the face of such charges, the embarrassed Thai government admitted that children working in slave-like conditions was a "severe problem." Although it considered the allegations of the UN human-rights panel "exaggerated," the Ministry of Labor immediately announced a crackdown on employers of the 5,000 to 6,000 children it estimates to be working illegally in the nation's rapidly expanding capital.
Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, chairman of the Anti-Slavery Society, warned that unless poverty could be removed, "it will be very difficult to get rid of this pernicious trade."
In Western Europe, Italy suffers from the most tainted human-rights record with regard to child labor, the Anti-Slavery Society told the UN group. An estimated 500,000 children are forced to work, most of them illegally, in conditions often more reminiscent of 19th century Dickensian England than modern-day Europe.
As in Macau, Thailand, or India, Italian children tend to be engaged in textile or electrical work. Many also perform menial labor in pizzerias, restaurants, and bars with hours not permitted by the law.
The situation is not much better in the countryside, where children are often hired out for low wages to pick vegetables or tend sheep and goats.
In southern Italy, cheap child labor has seriously accentuated already high adult unemployment. In Naples, for example, an estimated 50,000 children are forced to work for wages ranging between $9 and $18 a week compared to the $90 legal minimum. A large proportion are less than 14 years old.
In areas of the industrial north such as Milan and Turin, the child labor racket is reportedly controlled to a great extent by the Mafia. The Anti-Slavery Society warned that such unregulated labor can have disasterous consequences on health conditions.
In one example, 14-year-old Giuseppe Sanfilippo was killed by an electrical shock on his first day at work on a shop floor when a metal bar he was lifting accidently touched a high tension wire. "Such incidents could be avoided," warned the society, "by minimal professional training."
According to an Italian Labor Ministry report, 62 percent of children involved in 10,750 child-labor cases investigated did not attend school. "Children work because they are not encouraged to continue their studies," maintained a group of Milanese labor inspectors.
The Anti-Slavery Society, however, pointed out that an anomaly of Italian law only helps provoke abuse of child labor. While children are allowed to leave school at the age of 14, they may not enter full-time employment until 15.
"As a result we have children roaming around doing nothing for a whole year," commented one observer. To keep their children off the streets and from becoming involved in crime, many parents prefer to send them off to work, regardless of conditions.