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Another bumper year for the slave trade.

By Steve King Going once, going twice... An abolitionist's work is never done. Two hundred years ago, on March 25, 1807, after vigorous lobbying led by William Wilberforce, Parliament made it illegal for British ships to transport slaves and for British colonies to import them. (Denmark, as a matter of fact, had done the same thing three years earlier, but only Danes remember that.) In 1948 the United Nations appeared to finish what Wilberforce & Co had started. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights spelt it out in plain language: "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." Slavery was officially a global no-no.And yet in 2007 there will be more slaves in the world than ever before. A report by the International Labor Organization suggests a minimum of 12.3 million. Others say the figure is closer to 27 million. The majority are in Asia and Latin America. Kevin Bales, a professor of sociology at Roehampton University, estimates that a slave costs an average of $100. "The price varies around the world, and while one might pick up a 19-year-old male farm worker in West Africa for $40, the price of an attractive Ukrainian woman in North America might run into the thousands."When we think of slavery, we tend to think of the 19th-century "chattel" variety--Africans bound in irons, auctioned off like cattle and sent to pick cotton in the Deep South. On the whole, modern slavery doesn't look--or function--much like that. What today's slaves do have in common with their cotton-picking predecessors, though, is that they don't choose their condition and can't get out of it.The most common form of slavery is bonded labor, in which labor is taken as repayment for a loan. It is widespread in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Entire families may be enslaved in this way; usually they are low-caste or "untouchable". Interest is charged on top of the original loan amount and the bond can be passed down from one generation to the next. Bonded labor may sound as though it has a voluntary aspect, which disqualifies it as slavery. But most bonded laborers have no choice and their lot is in effect that of chattel slaves.Other forms of slavery are flourishing too. In Sudan, women and children are abducted and sold to government-backed militias. In Brazil, peasants clear the jungle at gunpoint. In Ghana, small girls are offered as sexual playthings to village priests by way of reparation for "transgressions" committed by other family members, living or dead. In Western Europe and the United States, East Europeans, Chinese, Vietnamese and other immigrants work against their will in prostitution, domestic service, farms and sweatshops. Trafficking--not people-smuggling but the commercial trade in humans--is one of the fastest-growing sectors of organized crime. Hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked every year, more women than men, many of them minors and most for sex. Trafficking is worth billions of dollars, not much less than the illegal drugs and arms trades. What hope does 2007 hold for the world's slaves? Wider recognition of their existence would be a start and that, at least, is on the cards. Politically, some progress has been made in recent years, with new UN and EU conventions against trafficking, and new policies against bonded labor in Asia. But although countries may sign up to international agreements and express their opposition to slavery, prosecutions are rare. "Fine words, and even legislation, are not enough," says Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International. "Implementation is key."So by all means celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolitionists' victory in Parliament on March 25. Just don't think for a minute that slavery is a thing of the past.A*The EconomistAnother bumper year for the slave trade

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Jan 9, 2007
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