Wednesday 12 October 2016

Why does Slavery Persist in the 21st Century? (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, Autumn 2016


By Urmila Bhoola

The Slave Trade, by Fran├žois-Auguste Biard
The Plenipotentiaries of the Powers who signed the Treaty of Paris of the 8th May 1814, assembled in conference:

'Having taken into consideration that the commerce, known by the name of "the Slave Trade," has been considered, by just and enlightened men of all ages, as repugnant to the principles of humanity and universal morality; that the particular circumstances from which this commerce has originated, and the difficulty of abruptly arresting its progress, may have concealed, to a certain extent, what was odious in its continuance, but that at length the public voice, in all civilized countries, calls aloud for its prompt suppression...'

It is now more than 200 years since the 1815 Declaration Relative to the Universal Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade, and the 1926 League of Nations Slavery Convention, which expressly prohibited slavery and the slave trade. Yet the scourge of modern slavery continues to plague our world.

Indeed, if anything, in recent years the tide seems to be turning: a breakdown in the collective interdiction on this ancient practice. Because, in fact, there is a significant ambiguity in the moral condemnation of slavery - which since ancient times it has been divided into two kinds, the unacceptable variety and the all-too often accepted.

For Aristotle in particular, the domestic slave was defined as the possession and property, or, as it were, the 'separable part of the master', even if they were supposed to be used not merely according to the owner's interest or caprice, but for the general good, and according 'to reason'. Likewise, Aristotle defined the slave as a person 'naturally' fitted to be such, writing:
'Those men, therefore, whose powers are chiefly confined to the body, and whose principal excellence consists in affording bodily service; those, I say, are naturally slaves, because it is their interest to be so. They can obey reason, though they are unable to exercise it; and though different from tame animals, who are disciplined by means merely of their own sensations and appetites, they perform nearly the same tasks, and become the property of other men, because their safety requires it.'
 And, (as Martin Cohen, for example, has argued in his book called Philosophical Tales),  if John Locke, many centuries later, is remembered as the exponent of indivisible human liberties, he too for many years toyed with arguments justifying and defending slavery.
In the Second Treatise, Locke updates this:
'...there is another sort of servants, which by a peculiar name we call slaves, who being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties, and lost their estates; and being in the state of slavery, not capable of any property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society; the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.'
It is only later, In the Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government, that Locke urges that slavery is 'so vile and miserable an Estate of Man' and 'so directly opposed to the benevolent temper and spirit of the nation' that it was 'hardly to be conceived that any Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for't.'

Today, similar doublestandards continue to contribute to the breakdown of the moral interdiction. The breakdown can be found manifested in the sexual slavery of Yazidi women at the hands of ISIS; in the forced marriage and enslavement of schoolgirls at the hands of Boko Haram, and in the exploitation of migrant and refugee workers in slavery-like conditions in various industries in the developing economies of the Global South.

At the same time, despite the progress world-wide made with integrating many small businesses into the formal economy, and the increased access to jobs for many, global supply chains are replete with claims of extreme labour exploitation, non-compliance with safety standards, lack of social protection and benefits, harassment, discrimination and violence, as well as prohibitions on trade union activity. Many of these rights violations occur where workers are forced to work in slavery-like conditions, for example in the informal economies in some South East Asian and South Asian economies, and are denied basic human rights because of their status as irregular migrants or refugees.

The example of Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar and seeking refuge in the region but being forced by traffickers to work for months without pay on fishing vessels has been well documented and has led to increased vigilance and monitoring, but the patterns of exploitation fostered as a result of forced displacement, migration, poverty, natural disasters, discrimination and inequality, continue to exist.

According to the 2016 Global Slavery Index published recently by the Walk Free Foundation, almost 46 million people in 167 countries can be said to be subject to some form of modern slavery today. The Index reflects that five countries have about 58% of their population in slavery - India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uzbekistan). These countries provide the low cost labour that produces most of the products destined for Western Europe, Japan, North America and Australia. North Korea has the highest percentage of its population in modern slavery, at 4%, and in absolute numbers India is the highest with 18 million said to be modern slaves. Research by the ILO (the International Labour Organisation) says that 21 million men, women and children are in forced labour, which is a form of modern slavery.

These numbers, although they are a stark indicator of the extent of extreme labour exploitation maintained through force or coercion and underpinned by poverty and social exclusion, are not helpful because even one woman, man or child in slavery in this world in which we have access to so much wealth, is one too many. Instead of focusing on the numbers we should address the issue of why the gross violations of human rights which reflect our inhumanity and lack of respect for one another, continues to exist, and why the immense corporate greed that drives human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery and generates billions in profits, which are often stashed offshore, is allowed to continue. They key question is how we create a world in which values of respect, love, compassion and consideration for every man, woman and child determine how we engage with one another.

Modern slavery affects everyone in every part of the world. It does not only affect desperate migrant, indigenous, disabled and ethnic minority groups but it also entangles ordinary citizens lured into jobs that seem real, who find themselves working in a foreign country for long hours without even basic pay, in jobs much worse than the ones they were promised, and having no documents because their passports are withheld. In the globalised economy, goods are produced for North American and European global corporations in the informal sector in small factories and home-based workshops in developing countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia. Clothes made, for example, in Vietnam or Bangladesh find their way to the sale racks of major global fashion retailers who charge in dollars for one item what that worker producing it is likely to earn in a year. The workers at the lowest levels of these global supply chains are often subjected to extremely exploitative working conditions, if not slavery and forced labour in order to meet the demand from middle-men in the supply chain. When we buy these goods, we as consumers become complicit in their enslavement.

Millions of women and girls are enslaved as domestic workers or in sexual exploitation, and many are trafficked for this purpose or for labour exploitation in jobs they did not agree to do or in situations where they were duped into accepting the work. They end up being indebted to the very criminals who enslaved them - recruitment agents who charge exorbitant fees, employers who deduct huge amounts ostensibly for accommodation and benefits, smugglers who are meant to take them across borders but who sell them as slave labour to traffickers. 

Why do we still have modern slavery despite extensive legal protection in international law and in domestic laws in almost every country in the world?

The profit motive is a key driver, and according to the ILO $150 billion annually is generated in profits as a result of illicit activities involving forced labour and human trafficking, which are modern forms of slavery. Traffickers and other criminals prey on the poverty, displacement, inequality and desperation of millions who are driven from their homes or leave to seek livelihoods for their families. These migrant workers, refugees, asylum seekers are easy fodder for criminal syndicates, smugglers and traffickers who operate to secure the highest price for providing cheap labour in the agriculture, fishing, construction industries and the informal sector. They use every opportunity to exploit, coerce, induce or defraud the most vulnerable, the poorest and the most marginalised amongst us, including bribing law enforcement and government officials to ensure that their profiteering is not affected by laws and regulations. Greed and corruption are thus key drivers of modern slavery, as is the access to millions of refugees, migrants and forcibly displaced workers and their families.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to identifying and ending slavery is that it is often hidden, its victims invisible, afraid and dependent on the very people who exploit them.  The victims are the most vulnerable, marginalized, displaced and will utilize any opportunity to earn money to put food on the table. It is only because as a global community we have lost our moral compass, and we can sell children into forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation without a thought for their safety and well-being. We see them as 'the other' so we are able to act with impunity and often get away with it as these crimes as often invisible. It is only when see ourselves as intricately connected to every other human being, when we recognize the God essence or soul in every other sentient being, that we are able to act to protect one another from exploitation and abuse. We have lost our way in many respects. We have lost our moral compass. We are wandering about in the darkness disconnected with one another.

It was this concern that recently prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to question (at the opening of the recent session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva) whether we really even have an international community worth speaking of. Such is the state into which we have fallen that people are homeless, stateless, turned away from Europe when they are fleeing violence of the most unspeakable proportions.

There are thus multiple situations in which our world continues to face unprecedented challenges emanating from the persistence of human trafficking, forced labour and other forms of modern slavery.  Pope Francis expressed this in the following terms :
' We are facing a global phenomenon which exceeds the competence of any one community or country. In order to eliminate it, we need a mobilization comparable in size to that of the phenomenon itself.'
This means that intensified, urgent and well-coordinated global action involving multiple actors (governments, business, civil society, consumers, activists, academics, politicians, faith and religious leaders) is needed to achieve its eradication. We also have to restore the rule of law in countries where this is weak or non-existent, hold government and officials accountable for continued impunity and promote effective law enforcement. The victims of gross human rights violations have to be treated with compassion and enabled and empowered to create alternative livelihoods as well as receiving just and fair compensation (amongst other remedies) for the rights violations they have suffered.

We have to remember that without justice there can be no development and peace - access to justice for victims of modern slavery, including securing compensation for them and ensuring their rehabilitation as productive members of society and not labour commodities, is critical to ensure that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed by 197 member states of the United Nations, really delivers the elimination of poverty, and achieves decent work, full and productive employment, the elimination of child labour, human trafficking  and modern slavery.

So back to our starting question: Why does slavery persist in the 21st century? The international community needs to act immediately to stop these brutal forms of exploitation. This is best done through complying with the globally applicable anti-slavery conventions, the 1926 Slavery Convention signed by the League of Nations and the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavey, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. The year 2016 marks the 90th and 50th anniversaries respectively of these Conventions. State impunity in making sure laws and policies prohibiting slavery are upheld and enforced is critical to send a message that these abominable practices have no room in the global economy. Business needs to comply with the responsibility to respect human rights, conduct due diligence to end child labour and slavery in supply chains at every level of the business and in all other activities.

The United Nations Guiding Principles, unanimously endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011, provide detailed guidelines as to how business can comply. Prosecution of offenders needs to increase, and in additional to undoing criminal syndicates and following the sources of illicit profits generated by slavery and slavery-like practices, governments and business need to act together with civil society to make sure that protection and prevention measures are stepped up, as well as livelihood support and decent work generation to prevent people from relapsing into slavery. Much needs to be done to make sure international legal instruments are not ineffectual in preventing the proliferation of slavery, and the key starting point is holding governments and business accountable.

The key drivers of illicit profiteering at the expense of human lives needs to end, and with it the worship of profit as the supreme truth, worshipped by many in an era where there is little sense of how we are all interconnected as human being belonging to the same universe. A global world where a small minority earn huge profits which they hide offshore while millions eke out a basic existence trying to survive on poverty wages, and in which the destruction of our natural environment continues unabated, cannot continue to exist. Today, more urgently than ever, it is the duty of all the citizens of the global community who believe in truth, humanity and justice, to make sure that it does not.

Urmila Bhoola, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery and its causes and consequences, reflects on the state of one of mankind's great moral issues,

Address for correspondence: Urmila Bhool can be contacted via Twitter: @ubhoola62

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