Thai girl, 14, good teeth ... $2K

May 7, 1999

From the forests of Brazil to the suburbs of Paris, slavery is big business - million people big. Kevin Bales reports

Recently I interviewed a young woman I'll call Seba. This animated 22-year-old was brought from Mali to Paris as a child by a couple who promised her parents that they would educate her. Instead, they made her a household slave - a life of drudgery broken only by explosions of brutality.

If Seba's case was unique it would be shocking, but she is one of perhaps 2,000 household slaves, primarily children, in Paris. And such slavery is not unique to Paris: in many Western European capitals there are people like Seba. And they are just one small group of the world's slaves.

One reason slavery is able to persist and grow is that so many people believe that it ended with the abolition of legal slavery in the United States and Brazil. People think about slavery in terms that are narrow and historical - concentrating on the slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries. In fact, if we define slavery strictly as the complete control of a person through violence or the threat of violence to exploit them economically, there are an estimated million slaves in the world.

Most slaves today are kept in a new form of slavery that has emerged since the second world war, in which the price of slaves has fallen to an all-time low. In the 19th century, slaves were major purchases: now they are so cheap as to be disposable. How has this come about?

The world's population has tripled since 1945, mostly in the developing world. And the economic transformations of modernisation and globalisation have driven people in the developing world both into cities and into debt. These economically desperate and socially vulnerable people are a bumper crop of potential slaves. But one other ingredient is necessary to turn vulnerable people into slaves on any scale - government corruption. When laws against kidnap and forced labour are ignored, those with the means of violence can harvest slaves.

In the American south in 1850 a slave cost about $1,000 (the equivalent of $60,000 today). For that price, clear ownership was expected and care was taken to protect the investment.

Compare that with the situation in Thailand today, where a broker can buy a 14-year-old girl from her parents for $2,000 and sell her on to a brothel for twice that. In the brothel, she will be told she must repay four times her purchase price to gain her freedom, but in addition she must also pay rent, food and medicine costs. Such slavery is known as debt bondage - and the debt keeps expanding through false accounting.

The profit that her "owners" make from her is as high as 800 per cent. Her annual turnover, the amount men pay for her, equals about $75,000, though she will not be able to keep that up. Her owners will be lucky to get five years' use from her because HIV is pandemic among the men who use these brothels. But because she was so cheap to begin with, she is easily replaced. If she becomes troublesome or ill, she is disposable.

While researching businesses in Mauritania, Brazil, Pakistan, India and Thailand I found slavery undergoing its own process of globalisation. The inter-connections of the world economy mean that we may be using slave-made goods or investing in slavery without knowing it. Slave-produced charcoal, for example, is used in Brazil to produce steel sold around the world.

Unfortunately, the work of academic analysts and the resolutions passed by the United Nations have little impact on the lives of slaves - but there are steps that can be taken.

First, the UN is considering a convention aimed at the trafficking in persons. With proper monitoring and enforcement, this could be a valuable aid in preventing slavery.

Second, we must change the practice and regulation of international trade. Clearly defined standards governing human rights must be given absolute priority in the World Bank's lending decisions and in the World Trade Organisation's trade negotiations, both of which govern international trade. Human rights must take precedence over property rights.

Finally, an agenda must be created at an international level. In 1997, the UN Security Council maintained economic sanctions against Iraq while its inspection teams searched the country for biological and chemical weapons. But what country has been sanctioned by the UN for slavery? Where are the UN inspection teams charged with searching it out? Behind the conventions banning slavery stands the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - but is it really universal if its provisions are not enforced at the highest levels?

If we take the long view, there is room for hope. While the process of globalisation has enabled the development of new forms of slavery, it has also introduced the concept that fundamental human rights are global. As acceptance of this concept increases, the economic underpinnings of slavery will be put under pressure. It is perhaps too much to expect any type of criminal activity to disappear completely, but globalisation may be both the harbinger of slavery and, in the long run, its death knell.

Kevin Bales is principal lecturer in sociology at Roehampton Institute. His book: Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, Pounds 19.95) is published on May 18.

RENALDO'S STORY

Slavery is widespread in Brazil's "Wild West". The burning of forests to make charcoal often uses slave labour. In Mato Grosso I learned how recruiters appear in city slums to trick workers into slavery with promises of good food and pay. A man named Renaldo explained: "The man was able to fill up his truck with workers very easily and we started west. Along the way, he would say, 'Go into the cafe and eat as much as you like, I'll pay for it.' We were hungry, so you can imagine how we ate! When we got to Mato Grosso we kept driving further and further into the countryside. When we reached the charcoal camp we could see the conditions were not good enough for animals. Standing around the camp were men with guns. And then the boss said, 'You each owe me a lot of money: there is the cost of the trip, and all that food you ate, and the money I gave you for your families - so don't think about leaving.'"

Renaldo was trapped. He was not allowed to know how his work was credited against his "debt". Workers who resisted were beaten up. The work itself is dangerous and serious burns and injuries are common. The slave-produced charcoal is then used in steel production, steel being one of Brazil's main exports to Europe and the US.

SEBA'S STORY

"I was raised by my grandmother in Mali, and when I was still a little girl a woman my family knew came and asked if she could take me to Paris to care for her children. She told my grandmother that she would put me in school. But when I came to Paris I had to work every day. In their house I did all the work - I cleaned, cooked, cared for the children and washed and fed the baby. I started work at 7am and finished about 11pm.

"I slept on the floor in one of the children's bedrooms and my food was their leftovers. I was not allowed to take food from the refrigerator. If I took food, she would beat me. She often beat me - with the broom, kitchen tools and electric cable. Sometimes I would bleed - I still have the scars on my body."

A few months before she was freed (when a neighbour called the police), Seba was tortured when she tried to escape. "One of the children came and untied me. I lay on the floor where they had left me for several days. The pain was terrible but no one treated my wounds. When I was able to stand I had to start work again, but after this I was always locked in the apartment."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments