New Internationalist

Of Human Bondage

Issue 300

OF human bondage
Most of us sell our bodies in some way or another.
Jeremy Seabrook
traces the global intricacies and extremes of that bondage.

The streets of Dhaka are thronged with cycle-rickshaws – metal-framed structures with a folding canopy to protect from rain and sun, painted with bright motifs of flowers and birds. On their back panels are usually scenes from a Bengali film or an idealized landscape. Sometimes the vehicles get jammed in the streets, to form a tangle of metal that seems to move as a single composite vehicle.

The drivers are mostly migrants. They strain every muscle as they pedal; their bodies glisten with sweat; all are skinny, some wasted. Many suffer from TB. Some survive a working life into middle age. A few, stringy, emaciated, resolute, with silver stubble on their cheeks, continue against all the odds into their fifties.

This is free labour. No-one is forcing them to sell their efforts in this way. No individual compels them to rent the vehicle each day, so that the first two hours of work yield nothing for them. No-one forces them to undertake work which will use more energy than the food they consume can replace. But these bodies are all that stand between their dependants – children, wives, elderly parents, those too sick to work – and a destitution without remedy, as the defeated bodies wrapped in shabby blankets and lying motionless on the sidewalk or in Ramna Park, testify.

Elsewhere, in Madhya Pradesh, Central India, Sudhu Ram tells how, at the age of 18, he inherited his father’s bondage. When the forests were felled, the tribals lost their only form of subsistence and had no choice but to take loans from landlords. They could not pay back even quite small sums, since the rate of interest exceeded their earnings. In any case, they were paid in rice, not money. Sudhu Ram went into the landlord’s fields when he was nine to look after the cattle. During the growing season he would wash the animals and feed them while the adults worked in the fields. This is bonded labour. Sudhu Ram was freed from bondage in 1988.

But there are still at least five million bonded labourers in India, even though bondage is against the Constitution. Bondage has now been ‘modernized’; a loan is taken, and work must be given in exchange, though for a more limited period. People need a loan for a marriage or to pay for medicine. They then become bonded to the moneylender for a limited period – three or five years – and during that period their labour remains entirely at his disposal. One condition of the loan is that if anyone should inquire they must say that they are free labourers in receipt of wages.

On the other side of the world, in Germany, a young woman begins her night’s work. Forcing her way through the tourists and sightseers, she takes up her position on the podium, beneath the strobe lights, holding the chrome pole, hoping to attract the attention of the foreign punters. The client pays the bar to take her off, to do what he pleases. He has rented her body for the night. If she comes to work late she will be fined. If she goes with too few customers she will be dismissed. If she fails the compulsory medical test and is found to be hiv-positive, she will be thrown out. This is free labour.

Another woman, Noy, was lured to Germany with a promise of work. Once there, she was sold to a brothel. She was deemed to have incurred the expense of the journey and was charged interest on her travel costs. Her passport was confiscated, she was not allowed to go unaccompanied out of the brothel. She received no wages. Only through a customer who took pity on her did she gain her release. She was then deported as an illegal alien. Her abductors were not touched. This is bonded labour.

Economic necessity which drives people to sell the only thing they have – their body and its labour-power – is regarded as freedom; when an individual coerces them to work, it is bonded labour and regarded as unfreedom.

But the borderline between the two is imprecise. Is a woman, man or child, driven by hunger and destitution to take work that is damaging and injurious to the body, more free than one who is compelled by another individual to labour for the barest subsistence? For allegedly free labourers in the global economy such distinctions are increasingly academic.

Slavery, the traffic in human bodies, is always in the process of being renewed in one form or another. In the contemporary world it is present not only in the sex trade but also in the commerce in domestic labour to the Gulf, labour on the Brazilian plantations, the cargoes of Bangladeshi or Indonesian workers arriving at airports in South Asia, dressed in the identical livery of some recruitment company, with name-tags round their necks.

Free labour merges imperceptibly with slavery; work becomes servitude; livelihood is transformed into strange new forms of bondage. And the labour market is the invisible global bazaar where survival – life itself – is traded for work.

To whom do the bodies of the people belong? Who controls the bodies of the row of young men in the gay club in Pattaya, Thailand, who masturbate competitively for a hatful of money donated by an audience of Americans and Japanese? Who owns the eyes and fingers of the women labourers in the electronics factories in the Free Trade Zones? Who commands the youth and energy of the young women in the garment factories of Dhaka and Ho Chi Minh City?

Driven by economic necessity to sell the only thing they have - their bodies - women in a Filipino brothel await clients.
PETER BARKER / PANOS

Consuming bodies
These are not idle questions, and should be asked not only of the bodies of the poor. Who, indeed, controls the bodies of the privileged? In recent years the dead in the West have ceased to decay as fast as they did earlier because of all the additives and preservatives they have consumed in their diet; embalmed in advance, in the interests of vast food conglomerates.

Here is another element in the exploitation of the body. The most lucrative, the most profitable cash crop in the world is human beings; the great harvest of the generations, whose vigour, strength and energy are driven to market. Now they are required for making ships or clothes; now for slaughter in wars to defend homelands against enemies, real or imagined; now for slave labour on sugar, tea or rubber plantations; now as sinks for the consumer goods of the world.

There are such opportunities for profit in the body: gold, jewels, diamonds for facial, hand and arm ornaments, the use of studs, crystals, rings in nose, ears, eyebrows, nipples, penis. There are such rich pickings in the manipulation of identity, be it for those who want surgery to look like someone else, or those seeking to defeat time with anti-ageing creams. And the cosmetics industry with its shampoos of elderberry and jojoba, its facials of cucumber and wild herbs, its body-mousse of strawberries and avocado, purports to apply to our body a freshness and purity which has long ago disappeared from what we eat.

Consumption mirrors, mimics and mocks the severities of labour. It is driven by the same compulsions, the same economic necessities, the same inescapable rigours and rhythms of an industrialization without end. The role of the consumer is to turn the body into an absorber of more and more industrial products, denatured but more expensive foods, medicines and remedies.

Our bodies, the bodies of an industrialized humanity, are for sale. The most extreme examples. which provoke such horror – prostitution, forced labour, bondage – are only the more florid examples of practices that are commonplace in the global economy.

At the most brutal level, women stand at the traffic lights in a Third World city, holding out babies and making gestures of hunger to those stalled in vehicles while the fumes swirl around them like an infernal fog. Three microcephalic children sit on a piece of sacking in Marine Drive in Mumbai; a man with elephantiasis extends his swollen legs and cups his hand in supplication; the most terrible existential misfortunes become livelihood.

A global commodity: migrant workers wait to sell their labour in Shanghai.
RON GILING / PANOS

The body is both the agent and the object of our survival. Our labour-power is the only means whereby a majority of humankind can sustain our physical being, our existence and identity.

While, in the global market-place, intensification of labour takes an ever-greater toll of the bodies of the poor, at the same time the bodies of consumers must be pampered and protected more than ever before, so that they will go on serving as consumers of industrial products of the future. Thus we see bodies wasted from insufficiency and overwork on the one hand and, at the same time, bodies bloated and wasted by excess and all the sicknesses of hyperconsumption.

The dependency of the rich upon the labour of the poor has always led them to despise those whose energies they use up. Manual labour is always looked down upon, precisely because it is indispensable. ‘These people are crooks,’ cries the employer of servants in a smart colony of Manila. ‘They will pick your bones clean, they will leave you with nothing.’

At the same time, a fascination with the bodies of the poor has always characterized class-divided societies. For example, Emile Zola’s fascination, in his novels, with working- class women; the obsession of DH Lawrences’s Lady Chatterley with her gamekeeper; the desire of imperial functionaries to possess the allegedly ‘sexually uninhibited’ women of the ‘native quarter’; or Oscar Wilde’s hankering after the street-boys of late Victorian London. Contemporary echoes of this may be seen in sex tourism to the Third World.

The bodies of rich and poor have always been destined to different purposes. The former, more sensitive, must be shielded and cherished against the rigours of life, sickness, ageing and hard work. The bodies of the poor, however, are worn out in the task of preserving those of higher castes, élites and ruling classes.

This model has been globalized with growing economic integration. But the sharp distinction between workers and consumers has now been blurred, since more and more people are both.

This is not necessarily liberating: it may just be a double bind.

The body remains the most basic element of our humanity, and the means of exploiting it have multiplied as the world has grown richer. To the age-old exploitation of the bodies of the labouring poor are now added new possibilities of making profit from the body’s appetites, its needs, anxieties and insecurities. Whether it be hard labour or over-consumption, the bodies of both privilege and oppression are, in one way or another, the site of perpetual struggle.

Jeremy Seabrook is a writer and broadcaster and regular contributor to the NI. He is currently working on a book on sexuality in India.

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