Jan 24, 2013 - Issue 501

Slavery Exists, and in 2013,
Rich Nations Benefit From Slavery

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The estimate today is that there are some 27 million slaves in the world. Now, no one knows exactly how many there are, because, since slavery is outlawed around the world, it is a rather clandestine enterprise. Modern slavers don’t advertise.

They don’t have to, but their “wares” are not hard to find. Kevin Bales, who authored the book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, is founder of the U.S.-based Free the Slaves, sister group of the oldest human rights organization in the world, the U.K.-based Anti-Slavery International, founded in 1840.

Bales is also a statistician and he believes that the 27 million figure is a conservative estimate for the total number of people enslaved around the world. This compares with the number of slaves in the Americas during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade: About 13 million.

After decades of abolitionist movements in many nations in the 19th Century, including the U.S., as well as a Civil War, which may have been one of the bloodiest in the history of war, is it not surprising that there are still slaves…everywhere? A definition of slavery is “the state of a person who is a chattel of another.” That means a human being that is owned by another human being.

The new definition includes those who, because of circumstances and usually because of abject poverty and other conditions that lead to depravity, are forced to perform work for little or no pay, to the extent that their condition in life does not improve and is not likely ever to improve. That goes for the individual and for his or her family.

Estimates are that, in the U.S. during slavery, a slave could be worth $40,000 in 2013 dollars, while a slave in today’s global economy is worth as little as $90. Bales and others have pointed out that it is not worth it for the slave master to “own” a slave today for a couple of reasons: Firstly, it is illegal. Secondly, why take on the responsibility for the food and lodging, for clothing and equipment, for a people who will work for small wages, much of which can be coerced from them by charging for the necessary supplies and equipment needed to do the job at hand?

In many ways, it is cheaper to force labor today under slave-like conditions than it was in the 18th and 19th Centuries in America. It is much more profitable, as well. And, today, race, ethnicity, nationality, and religious affiliation have no bearing on who is a good prospect for a slave job. It could be anyone in a condition of poverty or living in a failed country that has no structure of government that is able to protect men, women, and children under the laws and conventions that prohibit (in international agreements on paper) slavery or forced labor conditions.

The short explanation is that there are billions of dollars to be made by using slave labor, so companies and individuals will set themselves up to employ slave laborers in the hundreds of thousands and the millions. It is what has happened in most of the world since the advent of the “global economy.” The relationships between and among corporations of every stripe and size, in scores of countries, have quickly developed to take advantage of poverty, ignorance, sickness, and lack of democratic political structures, to set up factories, plants, and agricultural operations that hold out the promise of a real life for potential workers. The workers quickly realize that they are trapped and there is no escape. The promises are illusory. 

At best, many millions of workers in shops that employ “sweated labor,” are paid wages so low that they can barely afford to get to work and back home. In the United States, the places of “sweated labor” were once the ignition points of union organization and the places where the workers rose up to demand their rights as human beings. The result was the union movement and a rising of a giant and relatively prosperous working class and an affluent middle class. The relentless attack on workers and unions in America has resulted in a diminution of unions, social and economic problems, a great political divide, and a vast disparity in wealth between the wealthiest 2 percent and the rest of the people.

So-called developed countries, the rich countries, may be devoid of actual slave labor, but they benefit from slave labor performed in low-wage countries. Not only do they buy the actual goods produced in slave-labor countries, but the simple fact that slave labor exists and corporations have taken their factories and production to those countries tends to keep a strong downward pressure on wages of workers at home.

In the U.S. are headquartered some of the largest and most powerful transnational corporations in the world. Much of their production is done in low-wage countries and work that was once done here is now done elsewhere. The jobs, the economic activity, and the wealth are gone, and they probably won’t be coming back soon.

Because workers in those countries are paid something, they may not be considered slaves, but their pay often is less than an American plantation owner would have had to pay for food, shelter, and clothing for their slaves (all figured in 2013 dollars). The workers in 2013 who are paid such wages cannot live on such paltry pay. They can’t move to another country. They can’t educate themselves. They can’t feed their families a diet that will make them healthy. They can’t buy needed medicine. They are slaves and their servitude lays low the global working classes in countries that take advantage of the produce of those slaves.

The U.S. is one of those countries. While there may be only a very small proportion of workers who are actual slaves, a huge percentage of consumer goods imported and sold in giant retail outlets in America are made by slaves or those forced to endure slave-like conditions. What of our 21st Century abolitionists? Most of the people, the customers and consumers, are not aware or are not interested. The press is not much interested (it’s too complicated to report on a 20-minute national news show). And, low wages, slavery (in other countries, that is), high unemployment at home, low prices for consumer goods, and high profits have just become a way of life for the corporations. Some of those same corporations even own the mass media, and that sometimes makes it difficult to report on that aspect of their parent corporations, which make huge profits from importation of slave-made goods.

Although the numbers of workers in the U.S. who could be described as slaves or who work in peonage conditions is relatively small, there have been domestic workers who are slaves and untold thousands of farm workers and other workers in the nation’s food system who work for so little that they are deemed wage slaves by many. For these latter, they cannot afford to send their children to school, to buy a house (or even rent a decent home), buy healthful food, and clothe their families properly.

The benefits enjoyed by the people of the rich countries at the expense of sweated and slave labor in other countries are enormous. The answer to the question “where are the modern abolitionists?” is that they are waiting to be educated. Most people do not want to benefit from the suffering of other people (probably with few exceptions), but they do not know what to do. There are dedicated abolitionists who are ready to teach them, but getting the word out to the general public is a slow process.

In addition to Free the Slaves (freetheslaves.net), there are various United Nations agencies that address the crimes of slavery and human trafficking, including the International Labour Organization.

To get an idea of the extent of slavery in the world, see the interactive map on Free the Slaves’ website. The map shows the presence of slavery and indicates who benefits from slavery. The most slaves are to be found in Asia (including India), Africa and parts of the Middle East, in Mexico and Central America and South America.

The abolitionist group describes North America, Europe, Australia, and the nations of the former Soviet Union as nations that are “mainly (receivers) of slave labor and products.” Also, Free the Slaves describes Asia, Africa, South America, and Central America as places where “slave labor is used both internally and exported.”

The crime of slavery and human trafficking is devastating to the slaves, to their families, and to their nations. It debases and destroys their lives and is like a cancer in their societies. And, it is no less a cancer to those in societies that benefit from such abuse, but how does one in a rich nation stop it?

  • The first step is to educate oneself and to educate others about slavery, wage slavery, peonage, and other crimes against people. 
  • The second is to educate family members, friends, and neighbors, and then educate the community.
  • Learn which products that are sold in stores you frequent are made by slaves or under questionable circumstances.
  • Trace the global routes that the products take to reach your home.
  • The very act of learning and teaching one or two others is a step toward abolition.
  • Sponsoring a community forum on slavery is even better.
There are many organizations that address this modern scourge, but a good place to start is the Free the Slaves website. From there, you will find others and they will give a much broader sense of the scope of the problem and the crime. The sooner you start, the better. Good luck!

BlackCommentator.com Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.