In 1792, Denmark was the first country to abolish the slave trade on which its economic prosperity relied. But ever since, slavery itself has remained hidden – up to the present-day.
Trading in slaves was subsequently done away with by many nations, but ownership of slaves was a different matter. It was not until 1865, following a bitter civil war and ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, that ownership was abolished in the USA: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It took a further sixty years before the International Slavery Convention (1926) prohibited slavery in all its forms, reaffirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
By 1951, a UN committee on slavery reported that only vestiges of the practice remained in a few areas of the world. And in 1956 a UN conference adopted a Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, condemning forms of servitude similar to slavery and outlining penal sanctions against it. Problem solved, one might have thought. Not so, according to Kevin Bales, author of Disposable People (1999), which described the “new slavery” that replaced the old version. In it he wrote:
“Slavery is a booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves. And when they’ve finished with their slaves, they just throw these people away. This is the new slavery, which focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money.”
And so it goes on even today. In “The world has 21 million slaves – and millions of them live in the west” (The Guardian 19 October 2015), Wagner Moura laments:
“There are 21 million modern slaves in the world today, most of them women and girls hiding in plain sight in poor and rich countries alike – 7% of today’s slaves live in North America or the European Union. From trafficking and sexual exploitation to work in private homes, agriculture, fishing, construction and manufacturing, modern slavery is not only a crime, it is big business. It generates some $150bn in illegal profits every year, according to an estimate by the International Labour Organization (ILO).”
Moura notes that poverty is the root cause and that the most vulnerable and least protected people – women, children and migrant workers – are the most affected. Worse still, many people do not consider themselves slaves since they feel obligated to pay off a debt passed down through generations or because working disproportionately hard is the only life they know. All over the world, people elsewhere “may be eating food picked by modern slaves, or wearing clothes made with slave labour without realizing it.”
Contrary to the 13th Amendment and confirming that the problem of slavery persists in the USA, an article published on 20 October 2015 in The Salt Lake Tribune – a newspaper with a strong social conscience – lambasted a company for failing to pay 1,400 workers, including 175 children, from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) in Utah, who were told by church leaders to participate in a 2012 pecan harvest.
Women and men have described working at the pecan farm for years, sometimes for 13 hours a day in the cold, without ever being paid. The company concerned, its executives, the FLDS and the man responsible for day-to-day operations on the farm have previously been fined almost US$2 million for similar breaches of the law.
Wherever it occurs, as Wagner Moura comments, “To fight slavery, we must first and foremost fight poverty and advance social justice so that everyone will have the same opportunities. We also need robust laws that are enforced, inspections, social responsibility on the part of employers, awareness on the part of consumers, rehabilitation of victims and harsh penalties for those found guilty of enslaving people.”