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Characteristics of modern slavery
Which political mechanisms justify modern slavery, in contrast to values of freedom and equality? What stories do we tell ourselves in order to live with a free conscience? Ella Keren outlines the slavery of our times, which exists in each of our homes thanks to globalization
Two hundred years have passed since 1807, when a universal ban on human trafficking was declared. Yet despite the fact that slavery is illegal all over the world, it is alive and flourishing more than ever. Slavery is a deep-rooted social concept in all cultures around the world. In the nineteenth century, the democratic revolution, industrial revolution and age of enlightenment brought about a move from slavery to hired labor. Slavery was outlawed and its abolition was anchored in legislation, international agreements and in a 1945 UN treaty.

 

However, the conditions of today’s slaves are not that much better than in the past, and often, slavery today is much worse than the slavery of the past. Usually slavery is ascribed to people lacking freedom who do not receive wages for their work, but today slavery frequently includes receiving wages for performing tasks that are exhausting, humiliating and dangerous.

 

Which political mechanisms justify modern slavery that goes against all values of freedom and equality? What stories do we tell ourselves in order to live with a free conscience? There are three components to denying slavery: ignorance primarily identified with the United States, to where whom millions of African slaves were brought in the 16th –19th century; globalization which separates us from the production process and makes it difficult to know where products were produced and under what conditions; and mobility which allows slavery to spread from its historical geographical centers, namely Asia and Africa.

 

Characteristics of modern slavery

Slavery is based on financial exploitation and social insignificance. In society, slaves are the population group most susceptible to physical and emotional abuse and the elimination of freedom. They are assigned a life of poverty and oppression. Slavery has always existed, but it is different in every society and time period. How is the slavery of old similar to the slavery of our day?

 

• Financial characteristics: The commercialization of human beings as property and owners can buy and sell human beings. This objectifies people, and makes them walking tools.

 

• Social characteristics: The relation between an owner and slave is based on extreme dependence and inequality. The slaves are strangers, excluded from society and are ethnically and linguistically different from it. They are uprooted from their families and from any possible support network.

 

• Political characteristics: Slavery occurs when a country delegates all its authority to the citizens living there. It removes its responsibilities to the slaves, who are not citizens, and abdicates them to private individuals. These individuals then become actual owners, who benefit from the gap of power between themselves and the people who are left to their mercy.

 

Modern slavery is bound up in the cultural alienation, not just national separateness, of the slaves in the country to which they arrive, and the absence of protective services. The foreigners do not recognize the local customs, laws, institutions and language. They do not know where to turn if they are in trouble, and their dependence enables their exploitation. Their salary does not reach the minimum wage of the countries in which they are employed; they do not receive pay stubs, health insurance, or minimum safety conditions. Sometimes the employers who owe them money hand them over to the authorities.

 

Between the slave-worker and their employer there is a relationship of power and control that applies not only to their finances, but also to their private lives. The employers decide where they will live, forbid them to have families, and many times physically, emotionally and psychologically abuse them, many times threatening them with expulsion and extradition. Public indifference and their inhumane treatment make them weak, which is intensified by the lack of protection by the government authorities.

 

Slavery now and then

In the past, slavery was anchored in law. Today the slave/worker is not defined by a law as a slave, but as a person who agreed to work and can leave his post when ever he chooses, and the market views him as a free person. But in actuality, this theory does not apply to millions of people who are in forced-work situations. Not all the workers today have the opportunity to leave their work place, and sometimes that inability can be perceived as an inability to find other work. There are laws that protect workers from slavery and slave-like conditions, but in reality do these women really have protection? Historical slavery has become modern slavery, but without any legal standing, which has made it more difficult to fight.

 

The methods of slavery have also changed over the years; violence and aggressiveness have been replaced with the exploitation of human distress through fraud. Throughout history there have been cases where people found themselves struggling for their existence and enslaved themselves "willingly" in order to survive, usually during times of plague and drought. The current state of slavery is more elegant, in that the slaves "volunteer" for their jobs and many pay a significant amount in order to receive work after they are promised a great job in another country. The slaves borrow money and property, and when they arrive at their destination they discover to their horror that what they were promised does not exist. But now they are trapped: If they return without repaying the loans that they took they are as good as dead, so they now have no choice but to agree to the work conditions.

 

A third difference between modern and historical slavery is the worth of the slaves and the length of their servitude. In the past, the relation between man and land was for the good of the land, and each slave constituted a valuable resource. Today there is a lot of manpower and thus there has been a steep decrease in their worth. The abundance of cheap labor has changed the relationship between employer and worker. The employer completely exploits the worker and then throws him to his fate and hires others in his stead, which shortens the duration of the servitude.

 

The new patterns of slavery

In the second half of the 20th century there was a dramatic increase in the number of slaves. The process of financial globalization and the transfer from subsistence agriculture to export has led to the forced expulsion of millions from their homes. In South America, Africa, and Asia, in the weak, poor and developing countries, millions of people live in cardboard boxes in large neighborhoods surrounding the big cities. The social support services in these countries have collapsed, and in these populations there has been a dramatic increase in people who do not have the tools to cope. The resulting complete helplessness allows the dominant financial and political minority to use it for utmost gain- and the hardest hit are those displaced by processes such as privatization, which is usually seen as a victory by financial institutions.

 

It is hard to avoid the products of this flourishing modern slavery: they are found in our living rooms, because the decorative rugs were sewn by hand; they are in our kitchens in the containers of cocoa produced in Africa by people living in slave conditions; they are on our pay stubs since we do not know in which companies our pensions are invested. In recent decades slavery has become a delivery service, and its victims are usually the poor, women, children, minorities, and migrant workers.

 

There are many faces to slavery today: In the Sudan, militias kidnap people to service the soldiers; international aid workers sometimes redeem them. In Asia, there is frequently self collateral for a loan or advance payment for future work, and the debt passes on to the small children of the enslaved borrower; in Thailand, where the poor northern district is based on agriculture and rice production, parents sell their daughters into prostitution and they are sent to brothels in Bangkok; in Brazil, children whose only dream is a hot meal serve as slaves in Rio de Janeiro; in Burma forced labor is accepted and dictated by the government and the soldiers use the slaves to identify land mines; and around the world more and more refugees from forced labor are added to the count.

 

And over here? Slavery does not only exist on the social margins and does not only involve trafficked women. Israel is a member in the dubious club of nations where slavery occurs under the direct patronage of government policies- and its victims are the legal migrant workers.

 

For more information and to help contact the Hotline for Migrant Workers

 

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