Modern Slavery–The Real Thing, Not a Metaphor–Is Booming

It doesn’t look like the old chattel slavery model. In fact, it works even better–for the owner. It’s called ‘contract slavery’ and it’s happening all over the world, including here in the US.


For most of us the word slavery conveys images from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Tragically, however, slavery hasn’t disappeared; it’s just taken on a new, modern form.

Because of the clandestine nature of modern slavery, it is impossible to determine precise numbers. Both Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves have documented more than 30million slaves alive today, more than all of the people stolen in the time of the trans-Atlantic trade!

What matters most now is less color, tribe, or religion, but, weakness, gullibility, and deprivation.

Slaves are working mostly in simple, non-technological, traditional work. They are hidden among the population of domestic servants working in Great Britain. In the United States, Mexican farm workers have been found to be working simply as field slaves.

Enslaved Thai and Philippine women have been freed from brothels in New York, Los Angeles, and, yes, even Seattle. Slaves work in mining, jewelry making, and in cloth and carpet factories. Slaves clear forests, and work in a variety of small factories throughout the world. Child brick-industry slaves are all too common in South Asia.

How can this be?

One of the striking features of globalization in the rural areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America is how easily traditional families have been shattered by the forced shift from subsistence to cash-crop agriculture and government policies that suppress farm income in favor of cheap, often imported, food for cities.

Poverty has soared as incomes have plummeted. Then, too, corrupt and undemocratic political elites have focused on economic growth and commercial opportunity, too often for their own benefit, and have paid little attention to sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor.

Public understanding of modern slavery is often confused with reports of low-wage workers in substandard working conditions. However, modern-day slaves differ from these workers because they are, in fact, imprisoned, threatened, beaten and shackled.

In the past slavery meant one person legally owning another person. Today there is no place in the world that allows legal ownership of human beings. In many cases, however, non-ownership turns out to be in the interest of the slaveholder, who now enjoys all of the benefits of slavery without any responsibilities. Thus, modern slavery is not typically chattel slavery, where a person is born, captured, or sold into permanent servitude.

It is debt slavery that is most common today. A person pledges to work against a loan of money, but the length and nature of the work are not defined and the loan may never get paid off, the debt sometimes passed down for generations.

Contract slavery, the most rapidly growing type of slavery today, shows how modern labor relations are used to hide slavery’s basic brutality. Contracts are offered that guarantee employment, but when workers are taken to their place of work they find themselves enslaved. If legal questions are raised, the contract can be produced, but the reality is that too often the “contract worker” is threatened and paid little or nothing.

Government corruption, and often collusion, plus the threefold increase in the world’s population since World War II, have led to literally a glut in potential slaves. Slaves have simply become so cheap that they are not seen as a capital investment.

In this way the new slavery mimics the world economy in a shift away from ownership and fixed asset management. The new slavery simply appropriates the economic value of individuals while keeping them under violent control — but without asserting ownership or accepting responsibility for their survival. There’s no easy profit in infants, the ill or the elderly, who become disposable.

The direct value of slave labor in the world economy may be small, but the indirect value can be significant. Thanks to the global economy, slave-produced products move smoothly around the globe.

One industrial example, well documented by Kevin Bales, author of “Disposable People,” is the slave-produced charcoal that is crucial to making steel in Brazil. Much of that steel is used in the cars, car parts and other metal products that Brazil exports. Slavery lowers production costs, and raises profits.

An agricultural example includes the use of slave labor on cocoa plantations in West Africa, or in the sugar fields of the Dominican Republic, to supply the raw materials for chocolate products enjoyed all over the planet.

Most of us don’t want to believe that slavery still exists. But it does, and one of the first tasks is to admit our ignorance.

Tom Thompson, an economist, is a consultant for several human rights organizations.

I should be shocked. I’m not. Somehow the whole idea fits into modern corporate methodology like a hooker fits into the Republican Convention–with surprising ease and hardly a raised eyebrow. It’s the logical extension of policies and practices they’ve been following for years and, in their deepest dreams, the place they’d like us to wind up.

They’ll tell us it’s ‘for our own good’, that we’re lucky to have work at all, that they’re looking after us, that they have our best interests at heart–and then they won’t bother to tell us anything because their power over us will be so complete they won’t have to talk to us except to issue orders backed by brute force. It’s a dark vision but it’s a vision they embrace–all things are justifiable in the name of Profit, and inhumanity becomes just another way to lower expenses.

And why not? We’re one measly step above animals, aren’t we? It’s not as if we could boast their finer feelings for expensive cigars and the romance of bulging stock portfolios. Besides, there’s millions of us. We breed like rabbits, right? They use us up, throw us away, buy a few more of us. Simple, cost-effective. And, as we know from history, there’s always somebody willing to separate himself from the herd by his willingness to wield the lash. It’s a fine and perfect world where there’s a place for everyone and everyone knows his place. It’s paradise.

Thirteen thousand years they’ve been at it, give or take. These guys never quit.


2 Responses

  1. Hi,
    I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog 🙂
    Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day 🙂

  2. Thanks and welcome, Florian. And don’t feel bad – I think most people get here by accident the first time.

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