Slavery persists even after going out of fashion

Friday November 15 2013

The slave market monument built in 1998, in memory of the slaves packed in caves in Stone Town, Zanzibar. It has been classified as a World Heritage site by Unesco. Photo/FILE

The word slavery conjures up images of centuries past — shackled Africans being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, cotton and sugar plantation workers in the Caribbean and the Americas, and in this part of the world, captives being marched across Kenya and Tanzania to the slave markets in Bagamoyo, Mombasa and Zanzibar to be transported to Arabia.

But slavery is alive and well in the modern world, and in Africa in particular. The inaugural Global Slavery Index released last month makes for depressing reading.

Five out of 10 of the countries with the highest prevalence of slavery are in Africa; Mauritania takes the top slot.

When constructing the index, the Walk Free Foundation took into account both the incidence of real slavery — where people are the full property of their masters and whose children inherit their parents’ slave status — and slavery-like practices such as debt bondage, forced marriage, exploitation of children, forced labour and human trafficking in and out of a country.

Mauritania is one of the few countries in the world where real slavery exists; it is estimated that there are between 140,000 and 160,000 people enslaved in Mauritania, a country with a population of just 3.8 million.

Haiti has the second highest proportion of enslaved people, mainly children. It is called restavek, a cultural practice in which poor children are sent to work as domestic helpers in wealthier urban homes.


In exchange for light labour, the children are supposed to be provided with food, shelter and education, but the report notes that this system has been widely abused; children are often deprived of food and sleep, constantly physically and psychologically abused, and just one in five restaveks attends school, often sporadically.

But the country with the highest number of enslaved people, at 14.7 million, is India, which exhibits the full spectrum of modern slavery, including severe forms of inter-generational bonded labour, the worst forms of child labour, commercial sex exploitation, and forced marriage.

The 2013 Trafficking in Persons report puts the figure even higher, at an estimated 65 million people in India working in forced labour as a result of debt bondage. Some are victims of traffickers operating within India itself, who lure poor and vulnerable people with promises of the good life, only to trap them into working without pay and in inhumane conditions.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that internally trafficked people make up “”significant shares” of workers in the construction, textiles, brick-making, mining and food processing industries, all of which have contributed to India’s decade-long boom. Others are enslaved in their own villages, trapped in debt bondage to a local landowner or born into slavery because of caste, customary, social or hereditary obligations.

But slavery has gone out of fashion in much of the rest of the world. For centuries, it was an accepted and legal institution in many cultures.

How did it begin? Slavery was unknown in hunter-gatherer societies, which all of humanity was before people first domesticated plants and animals starting in 10,000 BC.

Slavery needs two conditions to emerge — an excess of land, and the need for intensive labour, which only emerges when a society has become agriculturally sophisticated enough to move away from gathering roots and small animals.

Intensive farming produces surplus food, which allows social stratification—people are able to specialise in other skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry or even priesthood, and trade their skills for food. But there has to be a continuous supply of food to keep the society running, hence the need for a labourer class. And the best way to cut costs and make sure there will always be a consistent supply of labour? Enslavement.

When slavery reached industrial proportions in the infamous Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it was a crucial—if not the crucial—component of the rapidly developing economies of Europe. But quite suddenly, in just 100 years, slavery was officially abolished by the majority of the Western powers —Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and the US — countries, which, just a few decades earlier, were the most enthusiastic slaving nations in the world. In fact, Britain made a dramatic volte-face, from being a leading slave trading nation to becoming the most vocal abolitionist.

What makes slavery fall from grace in a culture, and what makes it persist elsewhere?

Britain makes a good case study. Slavery existed in Britain all through Roman times and the Medieval Era. Known as serfdom, it was a somewhat milder form of slavery compared with the severe forms that would emerge later in the Americas.

Serfs were labourers bonded to the land they worked on, which belonged to the lord of the manor. Although they were compelled to work on the lord’s fields and mines, they were granted a small piece of land on which they could farm to feed their family, and some were able to sell their extra produce for money. A higher class of serfs known as villeins was even able to hold their own property, but serfdom was generally hereditary, and serfs were tied to the land and could not move away without their lord’s consent.

But the devastating outbreak of bubonic plague that swept across Europe in the 14th century would bring an unforeseen blessing for peasants.

In 60 years (1340-1400), Europe lost more than half of its population, serfs and noblemen alike. In some areas, more than 80 per cent of the population perished, and it took six generations for the population to recover to pre-plague levels.

Vast tracts of land were lying fallow, and suddenly, healthy, able-bodied workers were in very high demand. Because of the labour shortage, workers were able to demand better rights and higher wages, and although governments tried to fix wages, serfs could simply move to another farm where the landlord offered better pay. Before long, the structure of serfdom collapsed in much of Europe.

During the next few centuries, the continent’s agriculture flourished, perhaps because free labourers worked harder than serfs, or because of the gradual adoption of better farming practices.

With the population stabilising, countries like Britain started looking across the seas for new lands and new opportunities. When they established colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean, they had more land than they could work on (the Native American populations were decimated by diseases imported by Europeans such as smallpox, measles and cholera, which they had no immunity against).

Slavery thus re-emerged among the British, this time across the seas, with Africa now the source of much-needed workers. During the 18th century, when the slave trade accounted for the transport of six million Africans, Britain was the worst transgressor — responsible for almost 2.5 million.

With a steady supply of labour, the so-called Triangular Trade flourished, with manufactured goods such as cloth, tobacco, beads, metal goods and guns shipped from Europe to Africa, where they were exchanged for slaves. Slaves were shipped to the Americas, and finally, new, luxurious goods such as sugar, rum, tobacco and molasses were transported from the Americas to Europe, which Europeans experienced for the first time.

At the same time, technology was making Europe richer. Mechanisation took off after 1750, when new metal technologies made cheap steel and cast iron available. The new metal-working methods allowed farmers to invent machines that could do farm jobs faster, better and cheaper; the seed drill was invented in 1701, cast-iron plough in 1730 and the threshing machine in 1784.  But development of steam power during the Industrial Revolution was the game changer, adding another source of power on the farms that gradually displaced almost all of the others.

The slaves themselves were not needed in Europe, where machines were already doing most of the work — not coincidentally, a 1702 case ruled that “as soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free. One may be a villein in England, but not a slave.” The Slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807, and slavery abolished in the British colonies in 1834.

As its economy grew and its manufacturing industries needed bigger markets, Britain then began pushing other countries to abolish slavery too; it was abolished in the French colonies in 1848, by the US in 1865, and by Brazil in 1888.

Adam Smith, champion of free markets opposed slavery on both economic and moral grounds. As he wrote in The Wealth of Nations: “From the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by slaves. Whatever work he does, beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.”

So as Britain got richer (on the back of slave labour in the West Indies) and technology began doing most of the work of human beings, two things happened. First, an increasingly leisured middle class emerged, who led the compassionate humanitarian abolitionist movement, and second, many Britons began to see the benefits of a world economy where everyone was free to work for money, which could then be used to buy goods — which the British manufactured!

Large-scale slavery only flourishes until a society reaches a tipping point, where technology takes over the physical drudgery of industry, and at the same time, industries cannot expand unless they acquire new customers. Then it makes sense to free slaves, pay them some money that they can spend on manufactured goods, thus support industry. It is what led to the abolition of slavery among the Western powers in the 19th century. Compassionate societies are born when it makes economic sense to do so — or in the words of Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

So why does slavery persist around the world? The top 10 countries that have the greatest proportion of people living in slavery are all Third World countries. The exception is Moldova, which is still poor, by European standards at least; it has the lowest GDP in Europe and is a source country for human traffickers.

But in reality, the kind of large-scale slavery that was widespread before 1900 does not exist anywhere in the world today. Technology in all industries has advanced to the point where machines do many jobs faster, cheaper and better than human beings.

What still persists is domestic slavery as in Mauritania, child exploitation as in Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Gabon, Benin and Haiti, and human trafficking and debt bondage in India, Pakistan and Nepal. These situations are not any easier than the slavery of times past — the desperation, anxiety, fear and helplessness is just as real.

Slavery is profitable. Even as the world has become richer, slavery is relatively cheaper than ever (in terms of the cost of transporting and maintaining a slave, compared with pre-1900).

Modern slavery can generate high economic returns, as anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales argued in a 2001 interview with the BBC, “In the United States before the Civil War, the average slave cost the equivalent of about $50,000… today, it can’t be more than $50 or $100. While the price has gone down, the return on the slaveholder’s investment has skyrocketed. In the antebellum South, slaves brought an average return of about five per cent. Bonded labourers in India generate more than a 50 per cent profit per year for their slaveholders, and a return of 800 per cent is not at all uncommon for holders of sex slaves.”

READ: Prevalence of modern-day slavery high in East Africa

But slavery is illegal, and so requires corruption and crime to continue. The power of the slave owner is always subject to the power of the state; slavery can only exist if governments permit it. The determining factor in the continued existence of modern-day slavery is money, or rather the lack of it.

Lack of financial institutions for the extreme poor can push them towards loan sharks who charge high interest rates or insist on large loans that leave them vulnerable to debt bondage; poverty can make it impossible for the poor to move to an area where they can be employed as free workers; poverty forces families to sell their child to a wealthy family just to put food on the table.

As long as such exploitative social structures remain, slavery will be a feature of modern day life.