Slavery: A Worldwide Evil

From India to Indiana, more people are enslaved today than ever before

By Charles Jacobs, President, American Anti-Slavery Group

In 1993, Abdul Momen traveled to the town of Tungipara, 25 miles from Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, where 1,000 children, mostly girls, were reported missing. A dozen mothers told him the same tale: Their children had left with labor contractors who promised good jobs in the Persian Gulf.

Thousands of poor Bangladeshis send their children to work in the Gulf States to help support their families back home. But these children hadn’t been heard from since, and their mothers were maddened by the rumors: that these employment agents were slavers; that the children had been sold — the girls now stocking the brothels of India and Pakistan; that the boys shipped to the Gulf to be camel jockeys. After months of investigation, Momen, head of Women and Children International, concluded that the rumors were true. The children of Tungipara are slaves.

Most people believe slavery no longer exists, but it is still very much alive. From Khartoum to Calcutta, from Brazil to Bangladesh, men, women, and children live and work as slaves or in slave-like conditions. According to the London-based Anti-Slavery International (ASI), the world’s oldest human-rights organization, there are at least 27 million people in bondage. Indeed, there may be more slaves in the world than ever before.

This fact is generally not known. In part, this is because modern-day slavery does not fit our familiar images of shackles, whips, and auctions. Contemporary forms of human bondage include such practices as forced labor, servile marriage, debt bondage, child labor, and forced prostitution. Modern slaves can be concubines, camel jockeys, or cane cutters. They might weave carpets, build roads, or clear forests. Though the vast majority are no longer sold at public auction, today’s slaves are often no better off than their more familiar predecessors. Indeed, in many cases, their lives are more brutal and hazardous.

Who are these people? How do they become slaves? What might be done for them? A review of government documents, human-rights reports, news stories, and conversations with modern abolitionists around the globe uncovers a shocking reality.

India: The Carpet Slaves

Five-year-old Santosh was playing with friends in his village in Bahar when a group of men rode up in a jeep and offered to take the children to a movie. Instead, they were driven 400 miles to Allahabad — the heart of India’s “carpet belt” — and sold into slavery.

Locked in a room and given no food until he agreed to weave on the looms, Santosh made Oriental carpets for nine years, working from 4:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night, every day, without breaks. He was never given a single rupee for his labor. When he cut his finger with a sharp tool, the loom master shaved match heads into the cut and set the sulfur on fire. He didn’t want the child’s blood staining the carpet. After he was rescued, Pharis Harvey, director of the International Labor Rights and Education Fund, described Santosh as “almost catatonic. He had practically no emotion left in him.”

Hard numbers are hard to come by, but in India, the Bonded Labor Liberation Front believes that between 200,000 and 300,000 children are involved in the handmade woolen carpet industry, one of the largest export earners for the country. If one includes the 500,000 in Pakistan and 200,000 more in Nepal, the number of Asian child slaves in the carpet industry may reach one million.

These children work from toddlerhood to adolescence, from dawn to dusk, in horrid conditions. Harvey’s group describes the scene: “Children work in damp pits near the loom. Potable water is often unavailable and food consists of a few chapatis [bread balls], onions and salt. Common practice is to keep the children hungry so they will stay awake and work longer hours. The children often are made to sleep on the ground next to their looms, or in nearby sheds. After working from ten to fourteen hours, they are expected to clean out their sheds and set up work for the next day.”

Apart from the deep cuts the children suffer on their hands from the weaving tools, the dust and fluff from the wool brings on lung diseases and their eyesight is damaged from close work under poor lighting. And, like Santosh, many have been forcefully separated from their families. Harvey spoke to several children who were kidnapped and later freed after between six and nine years of servitude. Friends who tried to leave were tortured or even killed. Children live in constant fear of the loom masters.

Kailash Satyarthi rescues child slaves. He was shown on American TV in 1995 leading raids on loom masters. Satyarthi explains that children become carpet slaves in several ways. About 10 percent are kidnapped, simply stolen off the streets like Santosh. Another group may be given over to labor contractors who falsely promise that the children will be educated and cared for while being taught a trade.

Finally, many children are entrapped in a system of debt bondage still widespread in Asia and the subcontinent. From time immemorial, very poor people have pledged their own labor and that of family members as security against a loan taken in a time of crisis. Tragically, the original sum is hardly ever repaid: Because they are mortgaged personally on a 24-hour basis, workers inevitably incur new debts for food, clothing, and shelter. Added to exorbitant interest rates, this ensures families will pass on their ever-mounting debt to their children for generations. People are thus born into slavery.

Is there any hope? In February 1993, a consortium of European and Asian rights groups began the RugMark Campaign, which licenses exporters and manufacturers and affixes the “RugMark” — sort of a union label certifying carpets made without the use of child labor.

So far, Satyarthi says, 150,000 certified carpets have been exported to Germany. Local campaigns in the West pressure rug sellers to provide slave-free merchandise. Darleen Atkins, coordinator of End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT)-USA, which is launching a RugMark campaign in this country, says that if it is successful, prices of carpets may rise only between 1 and 2 percent. “Labor costs in Asia are incredibly low, practically free anyway, and form a very small part of the overall costs of manufacture and distribution,” she explains.

Prospects for the future? According to Harvey, RugMark is an experiment that offers hope. But the problem is daunting. Satyarthi, who pledges his life to end this horror, proclaims that child slavery is “the biggest shame in the world… The biggest human-rights violation is child slavery, turning humans into animals.” In a raid in January of 1996, he and his activists stormed a loom in Nayadaon, in Mirzabur district, and freed 28 children. Four of them had been kidnapped.

What should Americans do? Satyarthi has faith that as Americans learn of the plight of the slaves, “they will not buy items made from the blood and sweat of children. American taxpayers spend millions on ‘development’ in poor countries. Why not press governments that receive this aid to institute free and compulsory education for all children?”

Haiti: Sugar Slaves

Next time you add sugar to your coffee, think of Andre Prevot. A Haitian, Prevot met a man who promised him a good job nearby in the Dominican Republic (DR). But, as we’ve seen with the Asian slavers, this is a classic lure. “He took me across the border and sold me to the Dominican soldiers for $8,” explains Prevot. Once in their custody, he suffered the fate of thousands of his countrymen who are forced against their will to cut cane for six or seven months — from December to June — for little or no money.

Though many Haitians work willingly in the Dominican sugar plantations (Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere), there is a perennial shortfall at harvest time. The State Sugar Council, known as the CEA, fills the gap with a system that violates nearly every internationally recognized labor code against forced labor. Although political turmoil in Haiti has put an end to cross-border recruiting, the enslavement of blacks continues.

Before the coup to oust Aristide in 1991, Haitians were brought to the border by CEA-paid buscones, or “searchers,” and sold to armed Dominican soldiers at so much per head. During the coup, the borders were closed, Haiti was militarized, and cross-border recruiting came to an end. But the flight of 30,000 frightened Haitians into the DR brought an ample supply of cane cutters to its own backyard.

Now, when the harvest shortfall comes, it’s se epok chas la —”open hunting season” — on any Haitian in the DR. The Dominican army fans out across the country, hauls Haitians off public buses, arrests them in their homes or at their jobs, and delivers them to the cane fields. According to human-rights workers on the scene, “Any Haitian in the street can be arrested and sent to batey [shantytown].” After Marc Pierre, 24, crossed the border on a shopping day-trip to the DR, a soldier arrested and jailed him. “When I told him I didn’t want to cut cane, he hit me with his rifle,” says Pierre.

The captives are held in crowded, filthy barracks at military posts until their numbers are sufficient. Then they are driven in open trucks to the bateys, shantytowns on the edge of sugar plantations. Their belongings are confiscated, and they are handed machetes. To eat, they must work. They cannot leave. If they try to escape, they may be beaten.

Armed guards come for the sugar slaves at 5:00 a.m., banging on the doors with rifle butts. The men are taken into the fields to harvest cane for 12 or 14 hours under a brutal sun. Sharp cane leaves cut into their skin. They eat dried fish and rice and are permitted to drink the juice of sugarcane.

Back in the bateys, four or six Haitians share a small, dark room. They sleep on the concrete floor, sometimes on cardboard cartons, or, if lucky, on thin foam mats. There is no running water or cooking facilities, and there are few latrines. Some of the DR’s 400 bateys have electricity and well water.

Though the Haitians are paid for their work — $2 a ton — this pitiable sum melts away in a system designed to steal from the least powerful. A skilled man can cut a ton and a half a day, theoretically earning $60 to $70 a month, but first he has to tip the weight man to weigh his work soon after it’s cut: If it lies in the sun a day or two, it shrinks in weight. Then the men are paid in coupons (vales), which the local store discounts at 20 percent. Highly skilled, energetic workers might be left with $15 a month. The average fellow earns just enough to stay alive, not enough to support a family.

In the 1950s, state-sponsored forced labor was formalized through a contract between Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier and the DR government. In effect, Duvalier sold Haitian laborers at $60 a head. Aristide publicly burned and buried “the contract.” His new policy, along with a decade-long campaign by international human-rights groups, have led to some improvements.

In response to outside political pressure, for example, the DR has begun sending inspectors to monitor conditions in the bateys and granting contracts to the workers. Though it is reported that some plantation guards have been disciplined for mistreating workers, rights groups report no substantive change from these measures.

There were also programs to “normalize” the immigrant status of Haitians by registering workers with the department of immigration, and the DR issued permits of temporary resident status. The DR says 50,000 Haitians were registered, but Patrick Gavigan of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York City sees this as a cosmetic maneuver: The Haitians still can’t move around the country without fear of being arrested, sent to cut cane, or deported. They are still coerced to stay on the plantations. On the other hand, pressure to crack down on child labor has all but eliminated that practice, a major success for the reformers.

In 1991, U.S. trade representatives pushed for reforms, particularly an end to the deceptive recruitment practices. But instead of imposing restrictions on the import of sugar, the Bush administration accepted Dominican promises to improve conditions. This policy was unfortunate, according to Gavigan, who recently returned from an inspection trip. Even now, he says, whenever the plantation owners need labor for the harvest, a roundup of blacks begins.

What can Americans do? ‘More than they might think,” says Gavigan. The DR exports 72 percent of its sugar to the United States, and U.S. aid to the DR is over $20 million. “Congress and people doing business with the DR should be pressed to bring tremendous pressure to bear,” proclaims Gavigan.

Finally, more and more Americans travel to the DR to lounge on its sun-drenched beaches, a hillside away from slaves cutting cane. Thousands of would-be tourists (and convention planners) could pick a less morally challenged destination and strike a blow for human decency. That would bring a clear message: The DR must bring its treatment of Haitians into line with the most basic of human-rights and labor standards. And it must stop making people work at gunpoint.

Southeast Asia: Sex Slaves

“Lin-Lin” was 13 when her mother died. Her father took her to a job placement agency, which promised to get her a good job, and took $480 as an advance on her earnings. Instead she was taken to a brothel, where she sits in a windowed room with a number. Clients pay the owner $4 an hour for her. She cannot leave until she pays off her debt, which is her cost to the brothel owner, plus interest and expenses.

If “Lin-Lin” refuses to take care of her clients, she might be beaten, burned with cigarettes, or have her head immersed in water until she relents. If she tries to escape, she might be killed.

Of the $4, she theoretically gets about $1.60, plus tips. The owner keeps her money… and the records. “Lin-Lin” will be there a long time.

Hundreds of thousands of Asia’s children, mostly girls but also boys, have been taken from their homes and delivered to bordellos, where they fuel a sex industry that thrives in great part by servicing Western and Japanese men.

Although child prostitutes are used by Asian locals, some countries in Southeast Asia have become centers of sex tourism and targets of organized pedophile rings. Centered in Thailand but spread throughout Asia, this international flesh trade consumes girls as young as eight years of age, according to Christine Vertucci, information officer with ECPAT.

The sexual enslavement of children is part of the general exploitation of children in impoverished parts of the world. Indeed, sex slaves are captured in much the same way as Haitian cane cutters, India’s carpet weavers, and Persian Gulf camel jockeys. They are lured with false promises of decent employment, caught in debt bondage, kidnapped, or simply sold outright by parents, friends, or people they know.

Debt bondage in particular continues to enslave millions today in Asia. They are trapped by an obligation that may be passed from generation to generation; indeed, because of incredibly low wages, high interest charges, and cheating, it may never be repaid. Armies of debt-bonded slaves — including little children — work in rock quarries, as housemaids, building roads, weaving carpets, or as forced prostitutes. With no social safety net, a bad harvest or serious illness might mean starvation; bondage is better than death.

It is also true, according to Chis McMahon of the Centre for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CPCR) in Bangkok, that some girls are simply sold by parents who have fallen on hard times — not so much from a bad harvest but due to a drinking or drug problem. Some have been filled by TV’s corrupting materialism and simply must have a car, television, or VCR.

According to Vertucci of ECPAT, many of the little girls who are used by their families to pay off a debt do not know what the original principal or interest rate is, and so they will never buy back their freedom. Brothels can range from the seedy to the hideous. Often, they are closed compounds from which the girls may not leave without escorts. The local police are corrupt: A raid is an opportunity to collect a payoff, or even to sell back the girls to the brothel owner, who then adds that cost to the girls’ debt. The police themselves are frequently bordello patrons.

Sex slavery is now so ingrained in Thailand that many girls accept their fate as just another way of life. “More and more from their village have done it, and the Thai girls may pay the debt and stay in a life of prostitution, getting some economic return,” reports McMahon.

Indeed, the worst cases of brutally forced prostitution now involve non-Thai groups. The fear of AIDS has spawned an intense demand for girls who are supposedly disease-free. Thai-based sex slavers now seek out the very young and girls from other countries. Tens of thousands of girls from Burma, China, and Cambodia are being lured and kidnapped.

ECPAT is waging an international campaign for Western countries to criminalize the sexual abuse of children by their own citizens in foreign countries. (The U.S. Congress enacted such a provision under President Clinton’s crime bill.) In June 1995, Swedish courts chalked up the first such extraterritorial conviction, jailing a man caught in bed in Thailand with a 14- year-old boy.

Outside pressure has brought some changes in Thailand as well. A new Crime Suppression Division has been formed to battle forced prostitution. The CSD is a national police force whose men are moved constantly so they can less easily form relationships with brothel owners. But there are only 30 or so of them in the entire country, and their effectiveness is marginal.

For example, on March 1, 1995, the CPCR organized a raid on a brothel in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city, to free foreign girls who were held against their will. The girls were from the Akha hill tribe and were trafficked from China to Burma and then Thailand. The CPCR called in the CSD. The raid worked, the girls were rescued, and the pimps and mama-san were arrested. But they were immediately released on bail, and, when they disappeared, local Thai police were “too busy” to rearrest them. The brothel is now functioning as before.

The anti-slavery activists rescued 13 girls in this raid — 11 from Burma, 2 from China. The girls are now undergoing rehabilitation. But as Amihan Abueva of the child welfare group Salinlahi Foundation in Manila says, “It’s more difficult to rehabilitate children who have been sexually exploited than even those who have been traumatized by war.”

Mauritania and Sudan: Chattel Slavery

Hard as it is to believe that debt bondage, forced labor, and child prostitution flourish around the globe, it is harder to believe that pure chattel slavery still exits. In Sudan and Mauritania, two countries that straddle the Arab-African divide, a person can become the property of another for life, bought and sold, traded and inherited, branded and bred. Alang Ajak was 10 years old when she was captured and made a slave. She was taken in a raid on her village in southern Sudan and was branded when her master’s wife feared she would “get lost.” A hot iron pot was pressed to her leg. She has just recently escaped.

In Sudan, Africa’s biggest country, chattel slavery is making a comeback, the result of a 18-year-old war waged by the Muslim north against the black Christian and animist south. Arab militias, armed by the government, have been raiding African villages, shooting the men and enslaving the women and children. The latter are kept as personal property or marched north and sold. ASI reports that there is probably “no village in the north without its kidnapped black slaves.”

In March 1994, the special UN human-rights monitor, Gaspar Biro, reported the existence in Sudan of what he said might be called modern-day slave markets. Like any commodity, the price of human flesh in Sudan has varied with supply. In 1988, one automatic weapon could be traded for six or seven child slaves. In 1989, a woman or child from the Dinka tribe — an exceedingly tall and proud pastoral people of the Nile — could be bought for $90. Some of the children are trucked to Libya, according to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum.

The fate of these slaves is unspeakable. Not only are their bodies in bondage, but they are stripped of their cultural, religious, and personal identities. According to an ASI report: “Kon, a thirteen-year-old Dinka boy, was abducted by Arab nomads and taken to a merchant’s house. There he found several Dinka men hobbling, their Achilles tendons cut because they refused to become Muslims. Threatened with the same treatment, the boy converted.” Kon was lucky to have escaped: Others who are caught trying are castrated or branded like cattle.

Mauritania has outlawed slavery three times. But this former French colony of only two million people probably contains the world’s largest concentration of chattel slaves. In 1993, the U.S. State Department estimated that up to 90,000 blacks live as the property of North African Arabs (known as Beydanes, or white Moors). Other sources add 300,000 part-time and ex-slaves, known as haratins, many of whom continue to serve their owners out of fear or need. Local anti-slavery group El Hor (“The Free”) estimates that as many as one million haratines.

The slaves are chattel. They are used for house or farm labor, for sex, and for breeding. They may be exchanged for camels, trucks, guns, or money. Their children are the property of the master. They are born, live, and die as slaves. Africans in Mauritania were converted to Islam over 100 years ago, but though the Koran forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, in this case race outranks religious doctrine. Indeed, the black Muslim slaves of Mauritania are generally forbidden to share the basic rights of Muslims in even the poorest of countries: They may not marry, attend school, or go to mosque.

In 1990, the widely respected Human Rights Watch/Africa reported that “routine” punishments for the slightest fault include beatings, denial of food, and prolonged exposure to the sun with hands and feet tied together. “Serious” infringement of the master’s rule are met with a variety of tortures, including “the insect treatment.” Tiny ants are stuffed into the ears, which are sealed with stones and bound with a scarf. Hands and feet are tied and the errant slave is left for several days, after which, the rights group reports, he will do what he is told.

Unlike other victims, the black slaves of Mauritania and Sudan have had no powerful allies. In 1993, the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG) began a campaign to bring the plight of these slaves to national attention. We’ve had some success: The NAACP passed a resolution pledging to “come to the front lines of this battle.” The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Donald Payne (D-New Jersey), pledged congressional action. Cong. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts) initiated legislation requiring America to cut aid to Mauritania in response to the slavery there. These are all good signs. But to the people whose bodies, sweat, and blood are owned by others, whose every day is hellish, signs are not quite enough.

What Can Be Done?

Why is it that modern-day slaves get so little attention in the West, which prides itself on responding to other sorts of human-rights violations? Mike Dottridge, the ASI’s research manager, suggests much is explained by the Cold War origins of human-rights campaigning. “The focus was on political and human rights, which were being abrogated and abused by governments, not individuals or industries,” he explains. Victims embraced by the West — dissidents and intellectuals, “prisoners of conscience,” and torture victims — are defended by pressuring governments, which indeed can be moved. (And many are from the same social class as their human-rights defenders, who naturally identify with them.)

The case of slavery is quite different. Most of the problem is abject poverty and systematic methods employed by local power holders to exploit the weak. Governments are not the source of these phenomena — though they can be bought off or even become coconspirators. In the face of such scenarios, people in the West feel impotent: What can they do if local power groups conspire to live parasitically off the powerless? How can they intervene in the private sphere when abuses come from private citizens, not governments?

In addition, when it comes to problems based on overwhelming poverty, people in the West feel deep guilt — their comparative wealth becomes a stinging moral burden — and turn their backs. The human race has few Mother Teresas.

Finally, Dottridge complains, “There’s always the ‘show me the picture’ problem.” Photographs of modern-day slavery will not reveal whips, auctions, and chains. They depict complex power relationships — debt bondage, forced labor, the sorts of servitude that come from social power, not direct physical force. Cruel hierarchies are not seen in a snapshot.

And so abolitionists around the world are using new methods to fight the ancient scourge of slavery. Countries in the developed world and their citizen consumers are being urged to say no to products made with forced labor; to do no business with or touring of countries that engage in slavery-like practices; and to press their governments, as Zimmer and Frank are doing, to act against slaving nations.

The efforts of abolitionists should be supported. In this, the 21st century, surely the world cannot abide the hideous practice of human bondage. Or can it?