Saturday, June 9, 2012

Slavery is alive and well and living somewhere near you

In the excellent Bury The Chains, Adam Hochschild chronicles the beginning - and ultimate success - of the 19th century abolitionists. Led by the tireless Thomas Clarkson, this tiny group challenged the powers of the day and, ultimately, achieved their goal - the abolition of the slave trade in the UK. Hochschild ends his history with a quote from the charismatic American anthropologist Margaret Mead. "Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

The legacy of this small group lives on in what is the oldest UK NGO, Anti-Slavery International. But did they really change the world? The truth is that there are countless people around the world who live in slavery, almost certainly more now than at the height of the translantic slave trade. We might call it something different now, but the reality is that these people have been deprived of their freedom. I quote from the Anti-Slavery International website:
Millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves. Although this exploitation is often not called slavery, the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their 'employers'.

Slavery exists today despite the fact that it is banned in most of the countries where it is practised...... .....Women from eastern Europe are bonded into prostitution, children are trafficked between West African countries and men are forced to work as slaves on Brazilian agricultural estates. Contemporary slavery takes various forms and affects people of all ages, sex and race.

 Common characteristics distinguish slavery from other human rights violations. A slave is: 
  • forced to work -- through mental or physical threat;
  • owned or controlled by an 'employer', usually through mental or physical abuse or threatened abuse;
  • dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property';
  • physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement.

As ever, poor countries provide fertile ground for this most hideous of trades. A few weeks ago, the columnist Joachim Buwembo, writing in the East African, deplored the increasing number of young Ugandan women who were being recruited to take up jobs in the Middle East and Asia - many of whom were, in fact, being trafficked into, at best, bonded labour or, at worst, into sexual slavery. He asked why there was no control over people engaged in this trade, no effort being made through public information campaigns to educate society of the risks entailed in accepting job offers in other countries.

He might also have commented on the desperately sad stories published about a week ago in many Ugandan newspapers that identified 23 Ugandan citizens who are currently on death row in China after being convicted of drug trafficking. It is a widely-quoted statistic that more people are executed annually in China than in the rest of the world put together. The Chinese government refuses to disclose precise numbers of executions, but they are generally believed to exceed 2,000 per year.

Quite apart from one's opinions on capital punishment (which should be universally abolished) and the international trade in drugs (which should be immediately liberalised and brought within the scope of public regulation), where are the public information campaigns in Uganda informing Ugandan citizens of the risks presented through acting as mules for drug traffickers? In Uganda, which has remarkably soft penalties for drug trafficking (I stand to be corrected, but I believe the penalties for conviction are either a short prison sentence or a fine equivalent to about $1,200), I suspect that people are generally completely unaware of the risks they are taking by transporting packages on behalf of others, and will do so willingly in exchange for a free air ticket and an opportunity to make a little bit of money and maybe, just maybe, offer some hope for the future.

Poverty is a terrible thing.

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