by Kevin Bales
New Internationalist magazine, August 2001
This past April the world's media zoomed in on the 'slave
ship' of Benin. The ship, reported to be carrying 200 enslaved
children, was refused entry to Gabon and Cameroon. For two days
it disappeared while a search was mounted and fears grew over
the fate of the children. When the ship finally reappeared and
docked in Benin, it had on board only 43 children and 100 or so
adults. After questioning, it was found that most of the children
were being trafficked to work in Gabon. In spite of this the ship's
captain denied any involvement. The Benin Government then suggested
that there was another ship with child slaves, but none was located.
Were there other child slaves? Was there another ship? At this
point no-one knows.
What we do know is that this confusing incident is just a
small part of the regular human traffic between Benin and Gabon.
What was news to the world's media is well known in West Africa
- on what was once called the Slave Coast, the trade continues.
Increasingly, children are bought and sold within and across national
borders, forced into domestic work, work in markets or as cheap
farm labour. UNICEF estimates there are more than 200,000 children
trafficked in West and Central Africa each year.
Child slavery is a significant ;' money-maker in countries
like Benin and Togo. Destitute parents are tricked into giving
their children to slave-traders. A local UNICEF worker explains:
'People come and offer the families money and say that their children
will work on plantations and send money home. They give the family
a little money, from $15 to $30 - and then they never see their
While a slave ship off the African Coast is shocking at the
turn of the 21st century, it represents only a tiny part of the
world's slavery which has seen a rapid escalation since 1945 and
a dramatic change in character.
Three things have sparked this rapid change. Firstly, the
world's population has tripled since 1945 with the bulk of the
growth in the Majority World. Secondly, economic change and globalization
have driven rural people in poor countries to the cities and into
debt. These impoverished and vulnerable people are a bumper crop
of potential slaves. Finally, government corruption is essential.
When those responsible for law and order can be made to turn a
blind eye through bribes, the slave-takers can operate unchecked.
This new slavery is marked by a dramatic shift in the basic
economic equation of exploitation - slaves are cheaper today than
at any other time in human history. The agricultural slave that
cost $1,000 in Alabama in 1850 ($50,000 at today's prices) can
be purchased for around $100 today. This fall in price has altered
not only the profits to be made from slavery, but the relationship
between slave and master as well. The expensive slave of the past
was a protected investment; today's slave is cheap and disposable.
A good example is a 14year-old girl sold into a working-class
brothel in Thailand. Her initial purchase price might be less
than $1,000. In the brothel she will be told she must repay four
times that to gain her freedom - plus rent, food and medicine
costs. Even if she has sex with 10-15 men a night, her debt will
keep expanding through false accounting and she will never be
allowed to leave.
The profit that her 'owners' make from her is very large,
as high as 800 per cent. Her annual turnover, the amount men pay
for her, is more than $75,000 - though she won't see a penny.
These profits buy protection from the police, influence with local
government, as well as social prestige. Her owners will be lucky
to get five years' use from her since HIV is common in the brothels.
But because she was so cheap, she is easily replaced. If she is
ill or injured or just troublesome, she's disposable.
The brothels of Thailand are just one of the places where
new slavery can be found. Slaves tend to be used in simple, non-technological
and traditional work. Most work in agriculture. But they are also
found in brick-making, mining and carrying, textiles, leather-working,
prostitution, gem-working and jewellery-making, cloth and carpet-making.
Or they may work as domestic servants, clear forests, make charcoal
or work in shops. Most of this work is aimed at local sale and
consumption but slave-made goods filter through the entire global
economy and may even end up in western homes.
Studies have documented the slave origins of several international
products such as carpets, sugar and jewellery. We may be using
slave-made goods or investing in slavery without knowing it. Slave-produced
cocoa, for example, goes into the chocolate we buy. Rugs made
by slave children in India, Pakistan and Nepal are mainly exported
to Europe and the US. The value of global slavery is estimated
at $12.3 billion per year, including a significant amount of international
trade in slave-produced goods. Despite this outrage few Northern
businesses or organizations are taking action. Most trade associations
argue that it is impossible to trace the twisted path to a product's
origin or, more bluntly, that it's simply not their responsibility.
The World Trade Organization has the power to introduce a 'social
clause' to block products of forced labour, but it has not done
so. And while 'fair trade' programmes are important alternatives
to exploitation, they do not directly address the needs of enslaved
workers. Obviously, there are many questions yet to be answered
both about the economics of slavery and about the most effective
strategies for abolition.
Recent studies show that human trafficking is increasing.
The US Central Intelligence Agency estimates more than 50,000
persons a year are trafficked into the US. The UN Centre for International
Crime Prevention says trafficking is now the third largest money
earner for organized crime after drugs and guns. But a lack of
reliable information means that governments are scrambling to
build databases, develop effective interdiction, work out ways
to free and rehabilitate trafficking victims, develop laws and
conduct the research needed to address the issue.
Business is also pressed to deal with recent revelations of
slavery amongst their suppliers. The filming of slaves on cocoa
plantations in Cote d'Ivoire last year led to calls for a boycott
of chocolate. Cote d'lvoire produces about half of the world's
cocoa. Some local activists claim that up to 90 per cent of the
country's plantations use slave labour. Chocolate-producing companies
have promised their own investigation.
The situation in Cote d'Ivoire encapsulates much of contemporary
slavery. Slaves on the cocoa plantations are mostly from Mali.
Desperate for work and tricked by promises of a good job, they
can be purchased in village markets for $40 per person. The plantation
owners who enslave them are facing a dramatic fall in the world
price of cocoa as a result of the World Bank forcing an end to
the state marketing
monopoly. Meanwhile, Cote d'Ivoire carries $13.5 billion in
debt to the Bank and other lenders. With debt payments five times
greater than the nation's healthcare budget, there are few resources
to protect the enslaved migrants producing its key cash crop.
As well as importing, traffickers in West Africa export slaves
to richer countries. Educated young women from Ghana and Cameroon,
lured with a chance of further study in the US, have been enslaved
as domestics in Washington DC. Large numbers of Nigerian women
have been forced into prostitution in Italy. This human traffic
into and out of the African coast is mirrored in many countries
of the developing and developed world.
In Pakistan and India, across North Africa, in Southeast Asia
and in Central and South America, more traditional forms of debt
bondage enslave up to 20 million people. These slaves who may
be in their third or fourth generation of bondage contribute little
to export markets. Laws on bonded labour are either not strict
enough, or not enforced. Police are often ignorant of those laws
or, as in Brazil and Thailand, they may be profiting from bonded
The result is that underfunded non-governmental organizations
bear the brunt of liberating slaves, sometimes in the face of
government resistance. And liberation is just the first step in
returning slaves to a life of freedom.
Think for a moment about the 43 children rescued from the
Benin slave ship. Questions about their future are every bit as
perplexing as questions about their recent past. Many child slaves
have suffered physical and psychological abuse and require help.
Nearly all have to adjust both to freedom and the challenge of
earning a living. With luck, rehabilitation programmes will help
them. But few governments are involved in this work.
If there is any good news about modern slavery, it is the
dramatic growth in media interest and public awareness. The global
coverage of the slave ship was just one example. The UN has several
new initiatives on slavery and trafficking, as does the European
Union. At the same time, anti-slavery organizations are experiencing
an upturn in interest. As one representative of Anti-Slavery International
explained recently: 'It is heartening, after years of neglect,
to be part of a global movement against slavery. It is still in
its infancy, but it is growing everyday.
Kevin Bales is Director of Free the Slaves, the North American
sister organization of Anti-Slavery International and the author
of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University
of California Press, 1999), which won the 2000 Viareggio Prize.
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