Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Slavery Abolished? Only Officially

Worldwide, more than 400 million people are enslaved. But statistics can't tell the whole story.

Anti-slavery International, observing its 155th anniversary this year, is the oldest human rights organization in the world. Responsible for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, it was set up in its present form in 1839 to expose and eradicate slavery. According to the organization, today slavery is increasing in one or more of the following forms:

*Chattel slavery, or the ownership of one person by another.

About these ads

*Child slavery. More than 100 million children have been abandoned or sold by their parents and forced to survive through prostitution, labor, and begging.

*Debt bondage, common today in parts of Asia and Africa.

*Forced labor, or the forcible recruitment or capture of men and women, sometimes by governments, to perform a variety of servile work.

*Servile forms of marriage. In India, Thailand, and parts of Africa, many females are married against their will and forced into prostitution and servitude.

Slavery was legally abolished in most countries more than a century ago. In the last year, however, more than 2 million men, women, and children were enslaved. The total world slave population exceeds an estimated 400 million people. Yet statistics can't adequately convey the misery, degradation, and suffering caused by slavery. The following are examples of modern-day slavery.

In 1974 I was asked to go with a group to Beirut to film a transaction in a slave market. A brothel owner tipped us off to a sale of slaves that was to be held in a valley on the outskirts of the city. We hid ourselves on a mountain just above the valley and filmed the transaction with a telescopic lens.

A large, flat-top truck carrying 12 urn-like containers was the first to arrive. In each container was a person to be sold. The auctioneer gave the rules: All sales were final. Twenty-two customers (one was a member of our mission posing as a buyer) arrived in expensive cars and were permitted to inspect the slaves before the sale began. Buyers were to use cash.

About these ads

A young Ethiopian was the first to be sold. "Strong arms, good teeth, obedient, and still growing," the auctioneer barked. He sold for about $100. An Arab woman in her 30s went next. "A good cook, companion, and housekeeper," the auctioneer said. She sold for about $150.

The prize of the lot was a blond English girl in her 20s. "She can entertain and sing," the auctioneer announced. "Sing for us, honey." The young woman sang and did a seductive dance. She sold for about $600.

In total, the 12 slaves brought about $3,200. Each buyer put his purchase in the trunk of his car and drove away. Some of the customers were slave brokers, who were buying for a client or planning to resell their purchases for a profit. Though the government denies it, sales such as this one still take place in Lebanon, which abolished slavery more than 50 years ago.

The United States is not immune to the problem of slavery. In 1995, the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided a garment sweatshop complex in El Monte, Calif. According to agents, 72 Thai men, women, and children had been held, some since 1991, in involuntary servitude.

The workers were locked up, guarded, and threatened with death if they tried to escape. The sweatshop was surrounded by rolls of barbed wire and a 6-foot-high brick wall topped by metal spikes. The workers' children were often held as hostages to ensure their parents' obedience and as surety for inflated (and impossible-to-repay) debts.

Much to the satisfaction of Anti-Slavery International and concerned citizens, subpoenas have been issued to the owners of these sweatshops as well as to some of the companies who sell garments made there. Federal officials are giving the investigation of forced labor in the US increasingly high priority.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of government authorities in many other countries. In China, for example, if someone wants to buy a man, woman, or child for any purpose, it's as easy as talking with a concierge in one of many hotels, especially in Shanghai, Macao, and Hong Kong. The concierge can arrange for a meeting with a slave broker.

In preparation for an article, I met with a slave broker in a Hong Kong hotel. He was a well-dressed Chinese man who carried a briefcase. He spoke good English and could easily have passed for a broker in one of Hong Kong's leading banks.

When we met, he said: "First, you must understand that the responsibility of taking persons out of Hong Kong and to your country is entirely yours. It is not easy, and many questions are asked. All sales are final."

He opened his briefcase and took out some photographs, including one of a Chinese woman from Taiwan giving a massage, a girl from Canton sitting at a sewing machine, and a Filipina girl in a bathing suit. All were in Hong Kong and were available. He also showed me pictures of four young Chinese laborers, each strong and one waving at the camera. There were pictures of Chinese boys and girls no more than 10 or 12 years old. They looked startled, lost, and sad.

The broker told me that the prices for the females ranged from $100 to $175. The laborers went for $150 each; the boys for $75.

Before he left, I asked him how he got into the trade. "It's a family business," he said. "My father started it, and my mother and brother do a lot of the recruiting."

"Does it ever bother you that you're selling human beings?" I asked.

"I feel I'm doing these people a favor," he replied.

Anti-Slavery International has uncovered and exposed slavery in 30 countries. The reported incidence of slavery has been increasing, partly because of how the word "slavery" is defined. In 1991, reporting on contemporary forms of slavery, the Center for Human Rights for the United Nations said: "In addition to traditional slavery and slave trade, these abuses include the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labor, the sexual mutilation of female children, the use of children in armed conflict, debt bondage, the traffic of persons, and the sale of human organs."

Children working in the carpet industry in India, Pakistan, and Nepal are among the most victimized. More than 1 million children ages 6 to 11 live in bondage. They live and work in squalid loom sheds without proper ventilation or light. They work 17 or 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Many suffer from respiratory illnesses because they constantly inhale wool dust. Other illnesses also are common.

Punishment for trying to escape or failing to work includes beatings, food deprivation, and burning with cigarettes. Girls suffer the worst abuses, including gang rape and forced prostitution. India, for one, has adopted laws against child slavery, but the problem continues. Carpets made by child labor are sold, often at a premium, throughout the world.

Although slavery is deeply rooted in history, custom, and tradition, Anti-Slavery International, the UN, and other concerned organizations say slavery can be eradicated. Abolition, they say, is primarily the task of the governments concerned. Laws must be enforced and obeyed. Governments should be encouraged, aided, or shamed into taking action. As Michael Harris, chairman of the board of Anti-Slavery International, says: "This will depend on the development of a social conscience in the ruling classes and the education of the exploited classes to know and claim their human rights."

Foreign aid should be contingent on recipients taking steps to eliminate slavery. Economic assistance should be designed to facilitate the kind of development that will reduce the poverty that can lead to human exploitation.

With the continued help of such organizations as Anti-Slavery International, the attention of the news media, and public education, world opinion against slavery will strengthen. That, in turn, can lessen and, hopefully, eradicate slavery worldwide.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.