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Slavery and Survival: The Grim Reality of the 21st Century

Modern slavery is not yet banished to the past where it belongs

photo courtesy of Lisa Kristine

by Marion Devigne

Silently, men, women and children work 16 or 17 hours per day without any breaks in bricks production in Nepal.

It is naïve to think slavery stopped in the 19th century and only remains in your schoolbooks. The 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery found that 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery. In other words, at the time of writing, there are likely to be more than 40 million people who cannot escape being the property of another. These men, women, and children are forced to work under threat or have been married under duress to someone they do not wish to live with. The exploitation of a person who cannot possibly escape from violence and the abuse of power is well and truly slavery. Let us focus on two main issues that the report highlighted: forced labour and forced marriage, both of which are depriving human freedom. Of the 40.3 million victims, 24.9 million are considered victims of forced labour. For more than half of the cases, people work in the private economy (such as independent companies). To obtain labour, businesses use personal debts to legitimise bondage. Victims are therefore chained to an illegal financial obligation. This crushing mechanism is clear and scandalous: victims are forced to work in endless labour in order to repay what they   supposedly owe to their employers.

In Sudan, this malevolent technique immures young Ethiopian women. Facing illiteracy and poverty, they are often encouraged by relatives or acquaintances to work abroad. The hope of better job opportunities and salaries brings them to Sudan as domestic workers. However, their living conditions are dreadful. For most, they enter illegally into the ‘promised land’ after walking in the desert for several days without any support. Upon arriving they are deprived of their freedom, cannot go outside, and are exploited without pity. Unfortunately, I can say the same about many others who work in fields such as construction, manufacturing, agriculture, or fishing. These modern slaves assuredly suffer from multiple forms of pressure.

Often, their wages are withheld. Employers threaten not to pay their salary if the workers try to leave.

Also, physical or even sexual violence can be commonplace.

The same report estimated that 15.4 million people were living in a forced marriage. The vast majority (88 percent) are women and, regrettably, 14 percent of these victims were young girls under the age of 15 when they got married. Africa remains the continent in which forced marriage is most common. Brides are powerless within a patriarchal society. This is a truly foul deed; they are trapped, leaving no possibility of escape or living independently. The UN International Labour Organisation spoke clearly: forced marriage is a form of modern slavery. In any case, women are largely impacted by both forced marriage and forced labour (including domestic work and the sex industry). In our world, it is almost exclusively women who are victims of forced sexual exploitation, especially from Asia and the Pacific region.  

Regrettably, some countries benefit from modern slavery. To me it is clear that today, slavery is still all about commerce. Every day, hundreds of men in Kathmandu (Nepal) are queuing up in order to be employed in the Gulf, especially in Qatar. Nepal provides an easy labour force for construction companies. Workers lose their identities as their passports are often confiscated. They are accommodated or rather crammed into dilapidated places. According to the new report by the non-governmental organization Amnesty International, some of them are not paid for months and are subjected to forced labour. Since Nepal receives a quarter of its GDP in remittances, these workers represent a very substantial contribution to the national economy.

So much has still to be done to reduce or end modern slavery. Obviously, education and citizen advocacy must be supported. The recent survey indicated that stronger social protections for the workers are necessary. It also suggested that stronger cooperation between governments and businesses is crucial as private actors play a big role in that matter. Law enforcement and government accountability might also prevent trafficking and forced labour.

An easy recipe, you might think. Well, you’d be wrong. Modern slavery is not going to end in the near future. The lack of commitment of governments as well as difficulties in estimating the number of victims (percentages of children in the sex industry for instance) make this never-ending reality still possible. Even governments can use their power to requisition their citizens and impose labour for the purpose of economic development (from road constructions to agricultural projects). Despite the dedication of the UN International Labour Organisation to end forced labour and forced marriage by 2030, this hidden crime remains desperately common in our world.


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