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Slavery and debt bondage - the harsh reality of modern-day forced labour.

Million of workers all over the world are subject to forced Labour, says the 1993 World Labour Report from the International Labour Organization (ILO). The Report details cases of traditional slavery in africa, debt bondage in Asia, and new kinds of "white slavery" in Latin America, as well as the plight of children bought and sold to work in sweatshops and brothels.

Most people assume that slavery has long since been abolished. Not so. Traditional slavery persists in a number of African countries. Arab or Berber tribesmen used to capture black slaves in the south of what is now Mauritania and bring them back to work as domestic servants or in agriculture. Many slaves were released during the colonial period and others bought their freedom or escaped. All were theoretically freed at independence when Mauritania's Constitution abolished slavery. But it has proved very difficult to eradicate a practice deeply rooted in the country's culture and economy. Many slaves, even when told they should be free, find it impossible to break the mental chains of servitude, and many ex-slaves cannot find work to support themselves away from their masters.

Slavery also survives in Sudan. Indeed, as a result of that country's civil war, it seems to be on the increase. Unofficial militia groups when raiding villages have been seizing not just cattle and goods but also people either to work for their capturers or to sell as slaves. The war has also created new slaves in another way. Many destitute families have resorted to selling their children - mainly boys between 7 and 12 years old - for about US $ 70 each. In theory the parents only "pawn" their children to merchants and can redeem them later (for double their original price), but in practice the children are often lost to their families forever.

Slave owners bind their victims with a mixture of physical force and cultural pressure. But an equally effective method of bondage is debt. Here the employer entraps a labourer by offering an advance to be paid off through future earnings. But since the wages are low, and the employer frequently makes deductions for accommodation or tools, the worker cannot repay. Instead the debt mounts steadily and the employer may insist that it be passed from parent to child, or even grandchild cases have been found of people slaving to pay off debts eight generations old.

Pakistan has some of the most serious problems of debt bondage. The ILO's Committee of Experts has noted reports which estimated that about 20 million people are working as bonded labourers - of which 7.5 million are children. The brick-kiln industry alone accounts for 2 million and other industries using such labour include fish-cleaning, shoe-making, agriculture and quarrying. In some districts bonded agricultural labourers are called gehna makhlook (mortgaged creatures). Bonded labour is illegal in Pakistan, but the Government recognizes that the problem is still widespread and has resolved to eradicate these "abhorrent practices".

Bonded labour is also evident in India. The ILO has noted estimates from voluntary agencies that 5 million adults and 10 million children are bonded - working in a number of sectors including agriculture, quarrying, carpet-weaving and domestic service. The Government quotes a figure of around 300,000. Bonded labour is also illegal in India and the States have been charged with the responsibility of identifying and releasing bonded labourers: they have to establish "vigilance" committees in every district and fine or imprison guilty employers. But doubts have been expressed about the vigour with which these measures are being pursued. Particularly disturbing is the employment of bonded children. A fact-finding Committee from the Supreme Court of India, for example, has reported on large numbers of bonded children aged between 6 and 9 years employed in the carpet industry. They are forced to work long hours under close watch, and those who try to escape are beaten or tortured.

Forced labour is also a problem in Latin America. The Report says that in Brazil, for example, there have been over 8,000 cases in recent years of escravidade branca (white slavery) on the vast estates where forest land is being cleared for agriculture. Recruiters, known as gatos (cats) entice workers from poor communities with promises of good wages and working conditions. When they arrive on the estates, often thousands of kilometers away, the workers discover that they pay is much lower than they have been promised and that they also have to buy food from the gatos. Workers who try to escape are pursued by gunmen and returned to the estate where they can be beaten whipped, or mutilated. The Government of Brazil, through the Labour Inspectorate, has dealt with many of these cases, but points to the difficulty of policing isolated

regions of this vast country.

The Report also includes details of many other children who are forced to work from a very early age - millions of them employed "unseen" in domestic service. In Haiti, for example, over 100,000 rural children have been sold, or given to, better off families in the towns to work as servants. These children are known as restaveks - a creole word derived from the French rester avec (to stay with). They work long hours unpaid doing domestic chores and many are reported to have been physically or sexually abused.

The ILO has also received allegations of the widespread use of forced child labour in Thailand. It has noted reports that the recruitment of children is often quite systematic; child catchers and recruiters travel round the rural areas taking children from poor families; certain shops also specialize in the selling of children and teenagers, for use in private houses, restaurants, factories and brothels. The exploitation of children is one of the worst forms of forced labour, says ILO Director-General Michel Hansenne. "Be it in prostitution or pornography, be it in factories, sweatshops, brothels, private houses or elsewhere, it must be energetically fought and severely punished".
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Publication:Economic Review
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:989
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