According to the Exodus story, the Egyptians had begun to fear that the Israelite people living in Egypt had grown more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians themselves. To prevent these Israelites from joining Egypt’s enemies, fighting against the Egyptians, and escaping from the land, the Egyptians
set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. . . The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them (Exodus 1:11-14).
To most of us, the word “slavery” brings to mind images of a terrible oppression: the Atlantic slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with all its shameful and nightmarish horrors. We are likely to think of slavery as a long-vanquished anachronism, a horror safely confined to a shameful and barbaric past. Article 4 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude, slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”
Yet slavery still occurs and is, in fact, on the rise in the new global economy. Kevin Bales, the world’s leading expert on contemporary slavery, estimates that 27 million humans are held in slavery today. This is so shocking and horrible that one doesn’t want to believe it. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu has expressed his surprise: “Slavery. . . I didn’t know about all these forms that existed. I think it’s largely because we aren’t expecting it. It is hidden. Generally people would not believe that it is possible under modern conditions. They would say ‘No, I think you are making it all up’, because it’s just too incredible.”
Although we would like to think that ships transporting slaves and cotton fields cultivated by slave labor are a thing of the past, the horrors and humiliation associated with slavery have not vanished. They have simply taken on other forms in which outright ownership of another human being is generally avoided.
Many modern slaves are, for example, debt slaves and bonded laborers. These are persons whose labor is demanded as means of repayment of a loan or of a debt inherited from a relative. Worldwide, millions of bonded laborers are caught in a cycle of debt and forced to work in conditions that violate their basic human rights. Kevin Bales has estimated that most of today’s 27 million slaves – as many as 15 to 20 million – are bonded laborers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Other slaves in the new global economy are forced laborers – people who are illegally recruited by governments, political parties or private individuals, and involuntarily forced to work, usually under threat of violence or other penalty.
Contract slavery is the second most common form of modern slavery. Workers are offered contracts that guarantee employment in a workshop or mine or factory, but when the workers are transported to their place of “employment,” they find themselves enslaved. If legal questions are raised, the contract can be produced, but the reality is that the “contract worker” is a slave, threatened by violence, lacking any freedom of movement, and paid nothing or virtually nothing. Contract slavery is most often found in Brazil, Southeast Asia, some Arab states, and some parts of the Indian subcontinent.
Many of those who work in exploitative or dangerous conditions in the new global economy are women and children. Tens of millions of children worldwide work full-time at the expense of their education and their personal and social development. In addition, children are often kidnapped, purchased, or forced to enter the sexual slavery market – exploited for their commercial value through prostitution and pornography. Women and young girls are also often married off without choice and forced into a life of servitude, often marred by frequent and repeated physical violence.
And, yes, the old-fashioned barbarism of plain and outright chattel slavery still exists, although chattel slaves constitute a very small proportion of today’s slaves. The transport and/or trade of humans, usually women or children, for economic gain and involving force or deception is most often found in northern and western Africa and some Arab countries. Contracts are sometimes given to chattel slaves to conceal the fact of their enslavement
What can we do to help? We can do everything in our power to make sure that we do not buy goods made by exploited laborers. We can call upon our congressional representatives and the president to do something about this issue. We can ask the churches to which we belong to demand that our national governments and the United Nations do something about this modern horror. We can support organizations like Anti-Slavery International.
Anyone looking for more information on this topic should visit Anti-Slavery International’s web site at http://www.antislavery.org/ or read Kevin Bales’s The Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, a book just published by the University of California.