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Going Cheap

Human Rights

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Going cheap

Slave labour plugs neatly into the global economy. Kevin Bales argues that it's time to look beyond the cost-benefit analysis.

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 children again.’

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.

No such guarantees for cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire, being unloaded in Amsterdam.
Photo: Ron Giling / Still Pictures

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 14-year-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 quarrying, 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.

If she is ill or injured, she is disposable

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 Côte d’Ivoire last year led to calls for a boycott of chocolate. Côte d’Ivoire 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 Côte 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, Côte 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 labour themselves.

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. Kevin Bales

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