Modern Slavery

Modern Slavery is different from Old Slavery

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Steve McQueen's Oscar nominated "12 Years a Slave" - a film tells the extraordinary story of a free man torn from his family in New York in the 1840s and enslaved in Louisana, USA for over a decade.  Based on the real life chronicled experiences of Solomon Northup, the film provides horrific examples of the physical and psychological traumas endured by the millions of Africans who were cruelly exploited, enslaved and abused during the 400 years of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The film ends with a potted history of Solomon Northup's life, but sadly for the millions of victims suffering under the yoke of modern slavers, it fails to point out that slavery is alive and flourishing in every country in the world.  Many filmgoers who see the film will leave the cinemas, still under the impression that slavery and the slave trade are things of the past.  After all did we not  iin the UK celebrate the 200th year anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 ? and was not President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation brought into force in the USA after the US Civil War in 1865 ?

But making something illegal, does not make it cease to exist. Making something illegal only cause it to vanish from view. Behind closed doors, in remote places and right under our noses, slavery has continued, making people rich, feeding our lifestyles, and burning up lives.

Although every country has signed up to the tenets of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any other anti-slavery convention, there are more slaves now than ever before, an estimated 36 million according to Walk Free's Global Slavery Index. More people than ever before are forced to work, under the threat of violence and for no pay. On the African continent, hundreds of thousands are considered chattel and slavery is accepted as an everyday social institution, whilst on the Indian Sub-Continent, millions languish in generational debt bondage. Across the globe, young girls sold for sex and labour, are already the second most lucrative commodity for organised crime.

A fascination with the particular form of nineteenth-century chattel slavery, hides the larger story of human bondage, in our recent history and our global present. We have to put behind us the picture of slavery as depicted in "12 Years a Slave" or Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and accept that modern slavery is a different practice from old slavery.

 Slavery today shares with the slavery of the past, the essentials of violence and exploitation, but today it is not a legal institution, it is not a key part of any country's economy, nor is it completely based on race or ethnicity.   

Today slavery exists in many different forms around the world. But these forms share two key characteristics that distinguish them from slavery in the past; slaves today are cheap and they are disposable. This new kind of slavery arrived in the late 20th century.

Slaves are cheaper than they have ever been. The fall in their price has been so dramatic that the basic economy of slavery has changed. For example, an average slave in the American South in 1850 would cost the equivalent of £40,000; today a slave can cost as  little as £40. Because there is a glut of potential slaves on the open market, they are worth very little, which in turn means they are capable of generating high profits. The amount of profit to be made on slaves in the 1850s Louisana, averaged around 5% a year. Today profit margins start in double figures and can go as high as 800%.

The low cost of slaves is good for the slave holder but very bad for the slave. It means that, unlike the past,  the modern slave does not require special care as a major investment, and it means that slaves are easily replaced. They are like the cheap plastic biros businesses buy for office use. No one worries about the care and the maintenance of biros, or files title of ownership. Biros are disposable, and so are many slaves. So, if slaves get ill, are injured, outlive their usefulness or become troublesome to the slaveholder, they are dumped or worse.

We each have a responsibility to end this obnoxious crime against humanity once and for all. Although slavery is too big to be stopped by any individual, no matter how powerful, charismatic or clever that person might be, a small action can lead to big effect, if it is coordinated with the actions of others. One person jumping up and down won't cause an earthquake, but if everyone jumps together, the effect would be possible to ignore. Let's start jumping together as members of the Rotarian Action Group against Child Slavery and engulf the world with the message "Let's put an end to Slavery".    

Two key obstacles stand in the way of this objective: lack of resources and lack of awareness. In the modern world where most people loath slavery, awakening their awareness would unleash great power. When we come to know that we are living in a world of slaves, that their stolen labour and lives feed into our shops, our businesses and our homes, the urge to act will become irrepressible. When that urge, that desire that all should be free, sweeps across our world, the end of slavery will be near. From that desire will flow the resources needed to get the job done and the liberators need to help more and more slaves to walk free.

                                                                                                                                   Mark Little

                                                                                                                                   July 2015