Saturday, September 16, 2006


"Five long years I worked in a steel mill, chuckin' steel just like a slave"

Whipped Slave
Slavery is an institution that by the end of the 19th century was prohibited and repudiated in all of western society. In the world today there are few nations that have any form of slavery by name, just Sudan and Niger (both primarily Islamic African nations). According to the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, there are several nations which have effective slavery without the name.
United Arab Emirates -- Child trafficking: Although it is illegal to employ a child under the age of 15, hundreds of boys between four and ten are trafficked from South Asia to the UAE

India, Nepal and Pakistan -- Millions of men, women and children are used as forced and bonded labor in these countries. Most are dalit or from a low caste, or are from indigenous or minority groups. Laws against the caste system and against bonded labor exist but are not enforced.

Indonesia -- Forced labor and exploitation of migrant workers. "Poverty and lack of opportunity in Indonesia have increased the number of Indonesians seeking work in Asia. Indonesia's lack of protection and the Government's existing system for women migrant domestics exposes them to trafficking and slavery."
These are primarily Muslim or Hindu nations, in fact the instances of slavery still in the world seem to form a small band across northern Africa and southern Asia. North Korea and China have effective slavery by arresting political prisoners for dissent and putting them to work at labor camps. In Cambodia, children are taken across borders and sold as slaves. In Brazil, slaves make charcoal and dig for gold til they die, despite laws prohibiting slavery in both countries.

However, lest we feel superior, some western nations have a situation of effective slavery for many workers. While paid, the amount of money earned is only enough for basic, minimum subsistence, and as such is no different from granting basic room and board without pay. Unable to leave these jobs, there is little difference between this work and real slavery. Coal mines in the Appalachian region of the USA were like this, with pay being withheld for the most basic necessities, each worker going slowly deeper in debt to the company with no possibility of escape.

ProstituteMore current and common are sex industry workers, who are slaves in every sense of the world. Girls are taken at a young age, owned by a series of pimps and businessmen, and have no hope of escape or money to show for their work. Working on the streets or in brothels, these girls and young women are sometimes even imported from other countries such as Mexico with promises of comfort and wealth.

These girls rarely live past the age of 30, and are usually addicted to drugs, many dying of AIDS. After a certain age, especially a harsh, painful life that ages girls far before their time, prostitutes cannot make money any longer and are of no use to pimps. These girls do not transition into an ordinary life, they know nothing but prostitution, have no network of support to escape, and often are so wracked by drug use and disease they have no future in any case.

This year the Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department noted this:
Every year we add to our knowledge of the trafficking phenomenon. In last year’s Report, we used U.S. Government data that disaggregated transnational trafficking in persons by age and gender for the first time. These data showed that, of the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children trafficked across international borders each year, approximately 80 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. The data also illustrate that the majority of transnational victims are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.
According to the CIA, human trafficking is the third largest criminal industry in the world, with only drug and gun smuggling higher. Lis Wiehl from Fox News had a report on the sex slavery industry in which she noted:
We know that sex trafficking happens in other parts of the world, yet we don't think it's happening in our backyard. We promise the “American Dream,” but we also hold the title of second highest destination in the world for trafficked women. Women are trafficked into the U.S. from Asia, Central and South American, Russia and Eastern Europe — their lives sold for $2,000 (at most) to the predators who buy them.
The first real efforts to free slaves were in England, when Christians decided that the cruel bondage of fellow humans was immoral and sinful. The name people most attach to this movement was Wilberforce, and by 1807 slavery was outlawed in England. English warships patrolled against slave traders and slave ships as part of their duties in the war against Napoleonic France. In 1865, the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified to prohibit slavery:
1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
And over the years, various world treaties, statements, and resolutions have banned slavery:
  • UN Slavery Convention in 1926
  • International Labour Organization's Forced Labour Convention of 1930
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948
  • Protocol amending the Slavery Convention signed at Geneva on 25 September 1926 in 1953
  • UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery in 1956.
  • International Labour Organisation's Abolition of Forced Labour Convention in 1959.
For a more detailed history of slavery throughout history by mankind, Free the Slaves has an essay you can read. Despite all this, despite these laws, millions of slaves are suffering worldwide under forced labor.

All of this is very grim and awful, especially the heart-wrenching thought of those little girls sold into slavery to suffer at the hands of disgusting predators sexually over and over every day until they are too old to be of any interest.

ShacklesBut is slavery it's self evil? One would instantly presume yes, especially after reading much of the information above. Taking someone away from their life and forcing them into cruel deprivation and bondage is evil, without doubt. The images we all have of Kunta Kinte being whipped until he changes his name are seared into everyone's mind who watched Roots. Runaway slaves hunted with dogs and having a foot chopped in half are awful reminders of the evil of how slavery was practiced in the US and other nations.

Before we are sure, however, let's consider a few things. First, slavery is legal in the United States. You read that right, under the right circumstances, men and women may be taken into bondage, worked without pay or the ability to escape, and it is legal. Look up at the 13th amendment again. See those words "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" there?

Prisoners, convicted criminals are worked every day in jails without compensation and without possibility of escape or refusal. They are punished for failing to work and cannot run away without being hunted down and returned to work. This is not only legal, it's actually a good thing; prisoners are given exercise, but more importantly they are made to work their debt to society off, they are compelled to do something in exchange for the expense of housing and feeding them.

This is an aspect of the United States (and other nations) that is not considered when slavery is examined. The instant presumption is that slavery equals the kind of slavery that was practiced in the South, for example. People were taken by force from foreign nations - almost always blacks - and forced to work for the rest of their life. They had no possibility of ending this life, no rights, were not considered human, and families were split up.

Slavery, however, does not have to follow a pattern of racism, dehumanization, permanence, and cruelty. None of those characterize prisoners being enslaved (although someone with a multiple life sentence may be considered permanently a slave).

Servitude ContractThere was a kind of slavery practiced in the past that was called Indentured Servitude. Anyone who read Johnny Tremaine in their youth will remember young Johnny was just such a slave under Patrick Henry. He paid off the passage to America by working for someone for a set period of time. This system allowed people with no money to not only learn a trade, but better their circumstances. Naturally, like all of human life, some misused this system and conditions were awful cruelty in some cases.

But the concept, I argue, is sound. I believe that such a system if properly regulated, watched and implemented, would be beneficial to many people. Indentured servitude always had a limited time period, usually 4-5 years or ending at a certain age such as 21. Women who married had their remaining years paid off by the groom as compensation to the person they worked for. Punishment for escaping was usually lashing (but lashing at the time was pretty standard punishment for many crimes, it was one used on ordinary criminals and even for punishment of soldiers), but for appropriately today it would be an extension on time served.

PRison HandsA system of this sort could be used not only for those seeking to find a better life and to learn a trade where they have few if any other options, but more importantly for someone to pay for crimes they commit. Today there are few options of punishment for criminals. We either throw them in a box for x years or fine people. For some crimes, being isolated from society is appropriate and useful. For others, it is simply pointless and might even end up being training on how to be a better criminal.

If someone defrauds people or steals, commits crimes that are not violent or endangering others, a system where they work off their debt to society - especially working for the business they robbed - would be a useful tool, an alternative to jail time. Prison is very expensive, but working for a business for no pay beyond room, board, and medical care would be less so. Further it would tend to instill a sense of work ethic and the value of money and time in someone who might have little concept of any such thing.

Another option for Indentured Servitude would be to work off your debt, rather than bankruptcy or avoiding payment. This should be an option never a requirement, but for some the chance to work off one's debt would actually be appealing and a more noble choice than trying to use the law to avoid payment. Again, such a program would need strenuous laws and oversight, but could be a very useful addition to society.

For this kind of modern slavery to be properly implemented, it would be best to come up with an alternate name such as Indentured Bond or Restitutional Service. Something that is not slavery to avoid the baggage that such a term contains. Further some very clear distinctions from 19th century slavery would be required.
  1. Slaves cannot be simply from a single class, ethnic background or societal group
  2. Slaves must be for a limited time period or to fulfil a given criteria, not permanent and endless
  3. Slaves must be cared for and extended all other rights as fellow human beings
  4. Slaves are only taken into bondage for specific violations or reasons, not simply because they were captured and purchased.
  5. Slaves cannot be captured from other nations and transported to a nation for the express purpose of bondage
  6. Family members born to slaves are free persons.
Does this sound evil and awful to you? Is it more so than throwing someone in a prison cell for years to mingle with more hardened criminals, facing the horrors of some aspects of prison life? Giving someone a chance to make more of a life for themselves by learning a trade seems better than leaving them with nothing in poverty and no chances. And certainly this would seem a more effective, economical, and beneficial system (to both parties) than government handouts.

For us to move to a better society, I think we need to examine this option, to reexamine slavery to see if there isn't a way we can use some aspects of it for the betterment of everyone involved. Slavery by definition is not necessarily evil. Like most of life, it is how we use things that makes them good or bad. The evil of slavery as it was practiced in the 19th century was awful not because it was servitude, but because of the horrors perpetrated on the people and the racism involved.

At least it's something to consider.

Hat Tip to Anna Venger for her research and posts on sex industry slavery.

*UPDATE Added a few lines about Wilberforce and English abolition of slavery and characteristics of modern slavery.
[technorati icon]