The recent arrest of anti-slavery protesters in Mauritania has highlighted the fact that, despite slavery in that country officially being abolished in 1981 (pretty late, by most standards), it takes more than a few laws to upset an entrenched and seemingly archaic status quo.
The term “slavery”, that is, the ownership of one person (and their labour) by another, may conjure up images of the American deep south, or even more ancient times. But is Mauritania an anomaly? There are few that could feign ignorance about children who work in sweatshops around the world, and those who are forced to work in dangerous and unsuitable environments, or for meagre wages. But the sheer number of people who are trapped in lives of bondage, people whose lives are controlled by those who profit from their labours, may shock many who thought that that “peculiar institution” (as Southerners euphemistically nicknamed the practice) was an unsavoury relic of the past.
The examples below are just some of the instances where “slavery” can be strictly defined as ownership of one person and their labour by another, against their will. This includes human trafficking. There are obviously many other forms of worker abuse, child labour and exploitation, though even using this strict definition the list of examples is seemingly endless.
Slavery is an everyday part of life in Mauritania, where up to 20% of the population, or 600 000 people, are in bondage, according to estimates by Amnesty International. The practice is a relic of the history of the country, where dark-skinned haratin, or “black Moors”, have traditionally served beidane (“white Moors”). The relationship between these two groups is well-established, with many of the haratin thought to be descendants of African slaves brought into the region by slave traders in the Middle Ages. Trafficking also brings many women and children into the country to work as domestic labourers. Mauritanian slaves, generally, receive no education, and cannot marry or start a family without the permission of their masters, on whom they are totally dependent. The psychological dependence that results has been blamed for the persistence of the practice, with many slaves who were officially “freed” when laws abolishing slavery were introduced still living lives of servitude.
Uzbekistan is the world’s third largest producer of cotton, and the use of child labour is one of the reasons that the product can be exported so cheaply to foreign markets, who seem to turn a blind eye to the practice. Every autumn, the authoritarian state shuts down schools so that children are available to harvest the cotton, and they are sent into the fields. Teachers and headmasters are given quotas that their students must reach. The students — some as young as seven — are told that not reaching their quota will result in punishment and negatively affect their school careers. Those who refuse — or whose parents refuse to allow them to work — are threatened with expulsion. The children receive no compensation for their labour, and are exposed to dangerous pesticides in the process.
Debt labour, where people are forced into slavery to pay off a debt owed to their masters, is one of the most common forms of slavery practiced in the world today. Despite attempts by the Pakistan government to prevent it, there are thought to be between one million and two-million people in debt bondage, most of whom work in the brick industry. Desperate families approach factory and business owners for a loan to make ends meet or pay urgent medical bills, and are made to work in order to pay back the debt. This can be unpaid labour, or, if a meagre living allowance is paid, this is added to the debt, which increases the work hours “owed” to the employer. In many instances the whole family — including young children — is made to work in an attempt to speed up the repayment, and so the children of bonded labourers are prevented from attending school. This in turn leaves them vulnerable to further exploitation.
China’s forced labour camps, the laogai, modelled on the Soviet gulags, have been described by the government as a way to “cleanse” wrongdoers, and make them productive members of society. This is not unique — prison labour is legal and practiced all over the world — but the harshness of the conditions in these camps has raised concerns amongst human rights advocates. Prisoners perform a variety of tasks including mining, farming and factory work, working up to 19 hours a day. Concerns have been raised about who is forced to work in these camps. While “traditional” criminals (those who commit crimes that would be recognised as such by most countries) are housed in jails, those sent to laogai are often political dissidents, drug addicts, prostitutes (some of whom are already victims of trafficking) and others who, for vague reasons, are deemed “undesirable”. Prisoners need not go on trial before being shipped off to the camps, and some human rights groups have raised concerns that these camps are even being used to get homeless people off the streets. Those in the camps are given no access to their families or legal representation. Similar camps are known to exist in North Korea.
South Africa has been placed on Tier 2 (Tier 1 is the best rating) by the United States’ state department’s trafficking in persons report, which monitors international trafficking and ranks countries according to their governments’ efforts to combat it. South Africa is seen as a soft target for traffickers, with lax border control and corruption rife in the department of home affairs. Victims come from African countries where they are forced to work in agriculture and industry for no pay, before being reported as illegal immigrants and deported. It is estimated that about 1 000 young Mozambican women are brought into the country each year with the promise of work, but are forced into prostitution or “sold” as wives for migrant workers. There is also a large number of women from Eastern Europe and the Far East who are forced into the local sex industry, or who are temporarily placed in South Africa before being sent to the Middle East. One of failures of the South African government seems to be a lack of documentation. Numbers are rough estimates as many victims of trafficking are deported as illegal immigrants — without ever being documented as victims of trafficking — or find themselves jailed for the illegal activities they have been forced to take part in.