Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Twenty-seven million slaves -- who could have imagined?

The world is moving so fast and in so many ways with so many complexities that we can only hope that we have a reasonable grasp of it. I have the funnest job in the world, even though my topics are often unsettling; one of the reason it is fun is my students, who help me attempt to track what is going on. Here are some notes that Traci Horner has produced regarding a book that everyone should read.

Bales, Kevin. 2004. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Twenty-seven million human beings are slaves in the modern world. Most of us thought that slavery has been abolished but it is not so. There are slaves in the sex industry in Thailand, in the delivery of water in Mauritania, in charcoal production in Brazil, in brick-making in Pakistan, and in farming in India – the main locations of slave labor. There are an estimated 3,000 household slaves in Paris. In every case there is a legal cover for the practice of slavery. Many are in debt; some were forced into debt by subterfuge and seduction of desperate people; some are sold or given away to pay debts. Even though slavery is illegal nearly everywhere, it is protected by exploitative practices. After World War II the population explosion produced a growing body of people who had so little to live on and such little leverage that they were easily exploited. Now there is an abundance of slaves, which drives the price of them down. Desperate and helpless people are now abundant and disposable. There is little incentive to pour resources into maintaining a slave and once one is exhausted and no longer useful her or she can simply be cast out, abandoned (p. 15). “Slaves are now so cheap,” Bales writes, “that they have become cost-effective in many new kinds of work, completely changing how they are seen and used” (p. 14). “[S]laves are cheap and disposable; control continues without legal ownership; slavery is hidden behind contracts; and slavery flourishes in communities under stress” (31).

An example is Sari, a 15-year-old woman in Thailand. She was sold into bondage by her parents. She will be bought by as many as 10 or 15 men every night. Her “resistance and her desire to escape the brothel are breaking down and acceptance and resignation are taking their place” (34). . The police and her pimp beat and rape her at will. The impact on her is to believe that “she is a bad person, very bad to have deserved what has happened to her” (36-7). The industrialization of Thailand has created a whole new class of men with money to spend. One place they spend it is in the brothels, so “commercial sex is a social event, part of a good night out with friends” (45). As it happens, early all of the society either participates in or accepts the sex industry. In fact, between 80 and 87 percent of the male population of Thailand has had sex with a prostitute (p. 45). Many officials are bribed into ignoring the laws; others are regular brothel visitors (64). Many see sex slavery as a way to spur the national economy. In the 1960s, Thailand’s interior minister championed the sex industry as a way to promote international tourism. Even brochures advertise the joys of a prostitute in Thailand: “little slaves who give real Thai warmth”, reads a brochure from the Netherlands (76). Sex tourism brings in a great deal of money to the nation, and makes the slavery practiced in Thailand a global issue. The entire world is complicit in this industry.

A different practice of slavery exists in Mauritania. There it is “less a political reality than a permanent part of the culture” (83). Slavery was abolished there in 1980, but no one bothered to pay attention. Scarcely anyone questions the practice. A slave named Bilal works for his master delivering water door to door every day. If Bilal does not return with the required amount of money he will be beaten or yelled at and his food will be reduced (102). Because slavery is so pervasive, and because Mauritanian slavery has a racial component, slaves have almost no other options. The racism is so strong “that no official segregation is needed: the lines of family and tribe are exact and impermeable” (119). So if a slave leaves a master, there is nowhere for him to go. He is immediately recognizable based on skin-color, as well as clothing and speech, and will not be able to find work (87).

In Brazil poor individuals are lured into isolated work camps in the forest where they are forced to work in squalid conditions, without pay or communication with the outside world. This work is temporary, however, because the destruction it involves is temporary, and slaves get used and then discarded (122). They are held as debt laborers who have no hope of paying off their debt. The system diffuses responsibility so that recruiters and landowners and officials all have an excuse.

In Pakistan an entire families are sold into debt bondage to work in brick kilns, working in extreme conditions with next to zero rewards. As elsewhere slaves have no hope of paying back their debt, and to ensure they remain in place a slaveholder may take a child hostage (152). All services to the slaves are accounted as debts and the owner manages accounts. And they are sold and re-sold: an extended family of forty-four were sold from one kiln to another, without the consent of any members of the family, then sold again; all the while the costs were added to their debt. Local governments largely ignore the slave industry.

The practice of slavery in India is “a survival of the oldest enslavement on the planet” (197). The debts of agricultural slaves in India can go back for centuries (202). Baldev, for instance, did not know how long his family had been enslaved. “We have always lived here…It’s a regular thing. Kohl people like us have always been bonded to Brahmins like my master” (206). And yet some slaves have come out of bondage thanks to government assistance (211). But many stories of corrupt government dealings lead Baldev and others to reject government help, for they have heard of government officials who receive bribes to forget about the slaves they were sent to free (214).

If any aspect of the human condition exposes the underside of human nature it has to be slavery. The willingness of modern human beings to tolerate such treatment diminishes all of us.

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