Slaves -- going cheap!

On my journey around the world to investigate the modern-day slave trade for a new documentary series on Al Jazeera English, I have seen many parallels with the transatlantic slave trade of 300 years ago.

Today 27-million men, women and children are held, sold and trafficked as slaves throughout the world. That’s more than double the 12.5-million Africans who were forced into slavery during the several centuries of the transatlantic slave trade.

It’s actually cheaper to own a slave today than it was in the mid-19th century. Academic and campaigner Kevin Bales says that, in Alabama in the United States, you would have paid about $1?200 for a slave, which in today’s money is about $40?000 to $50?000.

“That price has just fallen and fallen and fallen,” he says. “Today the average price around the planet for a slave is about $90.”

This is a trade worth $32-billion a year, a trade that refuses to die and remains the most prolific evil in the world today.

Driven by desperation
In Pakistan, I saw three generations from one family—a grand­father, his son and his son’s wife, and their children—being forced to work as enslaved labour in a field ankle-deep in mud from which they were making bricks for kilns. The illiterate son had signed a loan agreement he couldn’t read. The terms meant that he could effectively never pay it off and so his entire family was forced to work, including his children. He became so desperate to pay off the debt that he sold one of his kidneys to his master’s brother, who was sick at the time. But even that wasn’t enough.

As he spoke to me, his owner stood no more than 10m away.

Slavery is illegal in every country and we have a widely accepted definition of what it means to be a slave in the 21st century—it means being forced to work under threat of force, of not benefiting from the work that you do, and not being able to leave this condition of your own free will. The idea of owning another human being like this cuts to the very essence of our collective humanity, and not just to the values that define us as individuals but also as societies. It also undermines the idea of human progress—that our age is wiser, more advanced and developed than previous ages.

No country is immune from modern slavery, as we’ve seen in the United Kingdom, where 24 alleged slaves were discovered early last month, living in “filthy, cramped conditions” in Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire.

The US fought a civil war to end slavery almost 150 years ago but the American government believes that between 14?500 and 17?500 people are trafficked into the country and enslaved each year. A conservative estimate is that there are between 40?000 and 50?000 slaves in the US.

Global conspiracy

The US recently initiated the largest case of human trafficking in its history against a US-based Israeli businessman, Mordechai “Motty” Orian. His company, Global Horizons, and several Thai and American associates, are accused of conspiring to hold 600 Thai workers “in conditions of forced labour”.

Temporary American visas were arranged for the workers but they were made to pay illegally high “registration fees”, which effectively meant they were trapped by a huge debt. They were promised that three years of work would pay that off and earn them a healthy profit but that never materialised. Instead they were often threatened with violence, put under guard and had their passports confiscated.

When one thinks of modern slavery, it conjures up images of people being smuggled secretly into the countries in containers and being forced to work in hidden sweatshops. But what makes modern slavery so insidious is that much of it is done above board and in plain sight.

Slavery is not just a crisis in poor developing countries in South Asia, Africa and the Far East. From the women enslaved as prostitutes in the red-light districts of Amsterdam to farms in Hawaii, modern slavery is all around us.

What I found profoundly shocking about the red-light district was how parents took their children around it as if it was a tourist destination, peering in windows, as though they were at Madame Tussaud’s or the Champs Elysses. The terrible truth is that many of the women they were looking at were trafficked and enslaved.

History repeating
There are horrific parallels between today’s modern slavery in the red-light district and the Dutch involvement in the slave trade in previous centuries. Saban Baran ran a Turkish gang that trafficked more than 130 women, mostly East Europeans. The women were beaten, scarred, raped and enslaved to work as prostitutes. I heard stories of forced abortion and of prostitutes being forcibly tattooed with the name of their pimp, just as slaves transported from Africa to the US were branded with their master’s name.

American ambassador John R Miller compares the Dutch argument that legalising prostitution was a forward-thinking measure to the arguments Dutch traders made during the transatlantic slave trade.

“The Dutch believe that they’re being very sophisticated and regulating,” he said. “This is the same approach they took back in the 17th century. The Dutch used to boast about how they had the healthiest slave ships, the best ventilation and the best rations — but slavery went on and on. All their talk about regulation was an excuse to avoid abolition.”

Slavery has ingrained itself into the global economic system of production. It is highly likely that something you eat, wear or use today will have been tainted by slave labour. We need to wake up to this reality. Only then might the governments around the world follow up their unified stance on slavery with unified action.

Slavery: A 21st Century Evil, which Rageh Omar presents, will begin on Al Jazeera English on October 10.

A year in the making, this is one of Al Jazeera’s most important global investigations. Shot on three continents and executive produced by South African Oscar and Emmy winner Jon Blair, this is the most in-depth study undertaken by a broadcaster on modern-day slavery. For more information, visit: //english.aljazeera.net

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