It is a common misconception that slavery is a thing of the past, a purely historical phenomenon that no longer occurs in today’s world, coming to an end in the nineteenth century with the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the defeat of the slave-holding South in the American Civil War.
Yet while slavery is nowhere legally permitted today—a clear break with the past—it is still widespread, present in one form or another in virtually every country on earth.
One frequently cited estimate holds that as many as twenty-seven million people are slaves today, coerced into unpaid labour as agricultural workers in Africa, held captive through debt bondage as brick-makers and carpet-weavers in South-East Asia, or trafficked to be domestic servants and sex slaves all around the world.
Moreover, the taint of slavery is pervasive, touching even the vast majority of the world’s population who are not directly involved in the control and exploitation of slaves. Many of the services, cheap goods and technological devices so popular with consumers in the West and elsewhere are produced at least partially with the labour of slaves. Slavery is profitable—that is why it persists. Innocence of its existence does not preclude implication in its evil, through the consumerism that makes it economically viable.
Pervasive though it may be, present-day slavery is largely clandestine and hidden, because of its illegality; slaveholders naturally shun publicity, and their victims are usually unable or unwilling to speak out. This issue of Global Dialogue tries to throw a little light on a murky subject by looking at the forms modern slavery assumes, and by enquiring what, if anything, can be done to counter what by any reckoning is a major curse of today’s world.
Some essential preliminary groundwork on the meaning of slavery is performed in our opening contribution. Jean Allain of Queen’s University, Belfast, and Kevin Bales, co-founder of the international non-governmental organisation, Free the Slaves, discuss how slavery has been defined in international law. They note that while there has long been an established international legal definition of slavery, the term remains contested, leading to disputes as to whether certain clear and severe instances of servitude amount to slavery. The exit from the definitional quagmire, they suggest, is provided by recognising as fundamental possession and the control that demonstrates it.
Accompanying their article are the Bellagio–Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery, recently drawn up by a group of property scholars and experts on slavery. The guidelines offer a framework for consistency in interpreting the legal definition of slavery, and resolve the dilemma of having to choose between the latter and a definition which reflects reality. They will thus advance the abolition of slavery in fact as well as in law.
A valuable overview of the nature and extent of modern slavery is provided by David K. Androff of Arizona State University. He surveys the numerous forms slavery takes today, among them sexual slavery, chattel slavery (which still persists in certain parts of the world), debt bondage, contract slavery, domestic servitude, state slavery, religious slavery, and child slavery. He also considers a range of policy options to ameliorate the problem, including community-based interventions, harm-reduction strategies, and legal and economic responses.
Our next three contributions look at various aspects of a phenomenon seen as virtually synonymous with modern-day slavery—human trafficking, the dealing in human beings for purposes of forced exploitation. The victims of such dealing are often transported across borders, but movement of this sort is not essential to the occurrence of trafficking, which may take place solely within a country, provided a victim has been recruited, harboured or received for coercive exploitation.
Julia O’Connell Davidson of the University of Nottingham queries the metaphor whereby present-day trafficking is routinely likened to the transatlantic slave trade. The analogy makes campaigning against trafficking morally and politically uncontentious, yet there are significant differences between the two phenomena, so that the slavery metaphor is historically inaccurate. It is also politically dubious, in that it camouflages the state’s contemporary role in creating the conditions in which some groups are open to abuse and exploitation.
Alison Brysk and Aditee Maskey of the University of California, Santa Barbara, argue that contemporary slavery, including human trafficking, is best understood as a “private wrong”—a particular form of human rights abuse by non-governmental perpetrators in which the state fails to protect its citizens. Focusing on trafficking in South Asia, with particular reference to sex slavery in India, they say that insufficient attention has been paid to the configurations of power and patriarchy that facilitate the abuse and exploitation of women. They urge a rethinking of trafficking to remedy this deficiency and allow more effective anti-slavery policies throughout the global South.
Elżbieta M. Goździak of Georgetown University examines the plight of arguably the most vulnerable victims of trafficking—children, in particular, children trafficked to the United States for labour and sexual exploitation. Drawing on research supported by the US National Institute of Justice, she looks at some of the prevailing assumptions and myths concerning such children, and contrasts these with the realities as expressed by the survivors of child trafficking and the discoveries unearthed by the research.
The most widespread form of slavery today is debt bondage, whereby people pledge their labour as security against a loan. The duration of the bond is typically undefined, and uncleared debts are passed on to succeeding generations, obliging them also to labour for the creditor. Brandeis University graduate Sarah Knight looks at debt bondage in India, home to the greatest number of people held in this form of servitude. She examines the socio-political factors in India that allow slavery to continue, chief among them being the caste system. She surveys the current anti-slavery laws and organisations in India, and suggests measures that could address the problem.
Virginia Mantouvalou of University College London enquires whether the abuse suffered by many domestic workers—particularly migrant domestic workers—may properly be considered a modern form of slavery. She examines the key features of domestic
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