Slavery: Not Yet Over


Harare – A person in bondage, a child in early marriage, a human being trafficked to a foreign country. This is the face of modern slavery.

And according to the Global Slavery Index 2013, published recently by the Walk Free foundation, Africa south of the Sahara has a massive slavery problem and also has the greatest diversity in terms of the risk of enslavement. The index explains that modern slavery takes many forms, and is known by many names.

These range from human trafficking, forced labour, slavery or slavery-like practices (a category that includes debt bondage, forced or servile marriage, and sale or exploitation of children including in armed conflict).

The victims of modern slavery have their freedom denied, and are used and controlled and exploited by another person for profit, sex, or the thrill of domination.

The Global Slavery Index 2013 provides a ranking of 162 countries around the world, based on a combined measure of three factors.

The three factors are the estimated prevalence of modern slavery by population, a measure of child marriage, and a measure of human trafficking in and out of a country.

The measure is heavily weighted to reflect the first factor – prevalence.

A number one ranking is the worst, 160 is the best. Reads part of the report: “It is estimated that 16.36 percent of the estimated total 29.8 million people in modern slavery are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is the largest of the regions measured for the Global Slavery Index, and also holds the greatest diversity in terms of the risk of enslavement.

“Mauritius leads the region in stability and the protection of human and worker rights, but is eclipsed by South Africa and Gabon in terms of the extent of policies on modern slavery.

“The high prevalence measured for such countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mauritania reflect centuries-old patterns of enslavement, often based on colonial conflicts and injustice exacerbated by contemporary armed conflict.”

The report notes that ongoing conflicts, extremes of poverty, high levels of corruption, and the impact of resource exploitation to feed global markets all increase the risk of enslavement in many African countries.

Child and forced marriages are still tolerated in the context of informal or “traditional” legal systems in many countries, notes the report.

The statistics for the region are grim reading with Southern African countries featuring prominently in the worst 50.

Tanzania is ranked number 29, followed by Malawi (33), Mozambique (35), Botswana (39), Zambia (40), Lesotho (44), Zimbabwe (45), and Namibia (46).

Of the countries from the region surveyed, South Africa, Angola and Swaziland fare much better with ratings of 115, 116 and 126, respectively.

Botswana is said to have a calculated 14 298 people living in one form of slavery or another, while Zambia and Zimbabwe have 96 175 and 93 749, respectively.

The report says there are some 14 560 victims in Lesotho and Namibia comes in with 15 729.

Other figures from the region are 1 302 in Swaziland and South Africa’s has 44 545 people living in some form of slavery.





The report identifies factors that correlate with modern slavery.

The research literature notes ample examples of corruption being implicated in modern slavery.

“This is no surprise; if the rule of law is effective it protects citizens from being enslaved. If the rule of law is corrupted, people are not protected and criminals can pay off officials and act with impunity,” says the report.

It also highlights that there is a link between levels of human development (including factors such as availability of healthcare, education and levels of income) and modern slavery.

According to research, higher levels of modern slavery correlate with lower levels of the Human Development Index (and conversely, lower levels of modern slavery correspond to higher levels of HDI).

“The level of a country’s human development reflects its economic wellbeing, which in turn affects the poverty levels and deprivation a citizen might face.

“On the other hand, higher levels of educational attainment, elevated health care, and the chance of effective citizenship, all tend to allow people to protect themselves from vulnerability to modern slavery.”

Poverty is said to be one of the factors that increase vulnerability to enslavement as well as a lack of economic development can mean inadequate resources are available to maintain an effective criminal justice or labour protection system.

Debt, too, makes people vulnerable to modern slavery.

The Global Slavery Index identifies debt as a “common pathway into modern slavery”.

“When access to legal sources of credit is not possible, the poor and vulnerable will sometimes turn to other types of lending, even to the mortgaging of their own lives – resulting in modern slavery.

“Access to financial services can be crucial for upward social mobility. Without access to credit, there is often little the average family can do to improve its lot in life.”

What is to be done?

Governments are tasked with ensuring an end to the scourge.

The report notes that nearly every country in the world has committed to prevent and eradicate modern forms of slavery – whether through their national policies and laws, or their agreement to international conventions.

“While individuals, civil society organisations, trade unions and businesses all have a role to play, the role of governments in addressing this human rights violation is paramount.

“Only governments can enact and enforce criminal and other relevant laws.

“Only governments can ensure that victims are treated as such and not as criminals. Only governments can allocate national budgets to fund law enforcement and other responses. “Efforts are being made to understand the size of modern slavery globally, and a handful of countries have undertaken national or representative surveys to more accurately estimate the size of the problem in their countries.”

Modern times, old practices



Slavery does not have just one history, different parts of the world had different ideas of what we today call slavery.

The two main differences are between what we call Indian Ocean slavery and Atlantic slavery.

In Atlantic slavery, slaves were taken to other lands like America and Europe, which is very different from the concept of slavery that we had in the East.

Later, when we started talking about abolition, “slavery” became the standard term in the rhetoric and discourse surrounding it.

But with modern-day slavery, the situation is very different. After the formation of the United Nations and with the human rights discourse our understanding of slavery has shifted.

The emphasis is on individual freedom and rights…

But are there similarities between what is described by the UN and early-day slavery? There are some.

People still hold power over other people, but the situation is not exactly the same.

New slavery has a lot to do with the economy as well as local traditions and culture in each country.

There are local conditions that are already conducive to slavery. For example, the caste system in India.

 A lot of people stuck in debt bondage are from the lower caste.

In terms of economy, several sectors like farming, silk weaving, stone quarrying and salt pans have people suffering from debt bondage. So, many industries are engaged in this practice.

Especially when you have low-skilled labour in a sector, but the sector is labour intensive. It becomes easier for the owner to provide workers food and accommodation than paying them. Because these are highly labour-intensive sectors, if you had to really pay workers the wages they deserve, the cost would be too high.

Now, you could blame the business owners and say that they are benefitting from free labour. But the fruits of these businesses are passed on to us. So we are not very far removed from the exploitation. And this applies to a range of products – from the garment sector to the salt we might consume.

It is not just the matter of promulgating some laws. In every country, bonded labour or under-age labour is illegal, but that’s on paper. What difference has it made? That is why I feel that such moves are cosmetic changes.

Not to say these are not necessary, but our efforts cannot just stop there. 

We have to have a more serious debate and introspection about the world that we inhabit. One way is to re-examine our lifestyle and consumption pattern. We should seriously look at the critique of modernisation and consumption – it is all tied to this. It is basically about trying to consume more prudently in every way. – Gulf News

 • Ravindran Sriramachandran is a Professor of Anthropology who specialises in colonial indentured labour.




November 2013
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