The Guardian June 20, 2001


A slave by any other name

by Denver Walker

Slavery is alive and well  if you can refer to anything so sick as 
"well". And it's alive on a scale that would shock many people. Not perhaps 
on the basis of one person owning another  or usually many others. Such 
"chattel slavery" still exists among charcoal producers in the more remote 
parts of Brazil, such as the Matto Grosso del Sul, where there is no real 
legal superstructure to prevent it. But the currently accepted definition 
of slavery is not one of ownership but of control. A slave is one whose 
work is unpaid, who is unable to leave their place of confinement and who 
is controlled by coercion and the threat of violence  all too often 
actual violence, including death.

Some might argue that this is the situation of many nominally `free' women.

How many people  for which, in most cases, read "women and children"  
exist in this state of slavery in the world today? An incredible  but at 
the same time believable  27,000,000.

That's more than twice the number of blacks abducted from Africa in four 
centuries of the euphemistically named "Triangular Trade". And it's more 
than two-and-a-half times the number that actually arrived alive in the 
Americas.

And where are these slaves? The short answer is everywhere. Of course, the 
existence of slavery is better known or more notorious  in some places 
than in others.

The "carpet slaves" of India have received quite a bit of publicity. These 
young children are locked in huts where they weave carpets laboriously by 
hand for up to 18 hours a day and are rarely, if ever, let out. They work 
for nothing but their meagre food and what might laughingly  though it's 
no laughing matter  be called their lodging.

Though their numbers have been reduced by outstanding anti-slavery 
campaigning, there still remain about a quarter-of-a million of them.

In the Sudan, children from the Christian south are abducted by militias 
from the Muslim north to act as slave-labourers or sex-slaves, and often 
both. You can actually buy a black woman in Khartoum for as little as $15.

Sudanese slaves are sometimes branded to identify runaways, as were Roman 
and Confederate slaves, as well as doubtless many others over the 
centuries. Sudanese slaves sometimes have their Achilles' tendons sliced 
through, which craftily combines punishment with prevention of escape. Leg-
irons serve the same dual purpose in some cases in Pakistan.

Slave labour is used for cane-cutting in Haiti and forest clearance in 
Brazil, where there are reports of coercion, torture and killings.

Brazilian Professor de Sousa Martins asserts that many government 
"development" plans would not be possible if it were not for slave labour. 
Some development.

Many similar examples could be given. But to believe that slavery is 
confined to Third World countries would be to believe a myth. Some 500,000 
women from Eastern Europe are in enforced prostitution in Western Europe.

In Britain and the United States, the position of au pair often turns out 
to be that of a slave. The original meaning of the phrase "au pair", 
according to Chambers Dictionary, is "by mutual service without payment", 
take out the words "by mutual" and that's a pretty fair description of a 
grossly unfair situation.

There are plenty of other myths about slavery. One is that the American 
Civil War was fought to free the slaves. Although there was much northern 
sympathy with abolitionism, the northern establishment's chief war aim was 
the retention of the union  with itself, of course, in the dominant role.

Lincoln himself was no great abolitionist. He stated that, even if freed, 
blacks would always remain inferior to whites. When he began to swing 
across, his first big idea was the transportation of the blacks to various 
far-off lands. Some choice  slavery or exile.

A small experiment was even tried with the dispatching of a number of 
blacks to Haiti. It failed miserably.

It is interesting to note that the emancipation proclamation and the 13th 
amendment were not passed until 1865  in a war that lasted from 1861-
1866. On the part of at least a section of Congress, these were seen as 
acts of expediency rather than justice  and downright opposed by many.

And the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery, was not ratified by the 
state of Georgia until the late '90s. That's 1990s, not the 1890s.

Another widespread myth about slavery is that its main and most consistent 
opponent has always been Christianity.

Search the pages of the Bible, including the words of Jesus, and you will 
find not a single condemnation of slavery. In the early centuries of the 
church, it was only the dissident Manicheans who declared slavery as 
"anathema". They were branded heretics.

Popes who backed slavery included Gregory I (6th century): "Slaves should 
recognise that they are only slaves"; Nicholas V (15th century), who said 
that all unbelievers and Muslims should be condemned to slavery; and three 
17th-century Popes who were all directly involved in the buying and selling 
of slaves.

It was only in the 17th century that the first Christian opposition to 
slavery arose  but only from dissident factions such as the Anabaptists, 
Mennonites and Quakers.

The Catholic Church only finally condemned slavery in 1888  perhaps to 
retain its support in the US. Only two decades earlier, the Vatican decreed 
that "slavery itself ... is not at all contrary to the natural or divine 
law".

Now that at last it is considered contrary to both those and international 
laws, how do our modern slavers achieve their ends? In numerous ways. There 
is direct kidnapping  "buying" children from their callous or desperate 
parents.

I don't see how you can "sell" something you don't actually "own", yet an 
estimated 200,000 west African children are sold into slavery each year.

Thousands of young women lured from eastern to western Europe are given 
promises of lucrative jobs. On arrival, they are forced to pay ludicrous 
"deposits" and "fees", leaving them destitute and unable to return and then 
forced into wholly unlucrative prostitution and held under virtual house 
arrest.

Workers in Brazil and elsewhere are promised huge (by their standards  
tiny by ours) wages. When transported up to a thousand miles to isolated 
areas, making escape impossible, they find those wages not immediately 
forthcoming.

A similar trick is debt slavery, where impoverished workers are often 
offered small loans against future wages. The wages cannot cover the 
exorbitant interest rates and the debt grows faster than wages accumulate, 
the workers are forced  often literally  to continue working until the 
debt is paid  that is, indefinitely.

There has been a twist, though, in the case of the "Etireno" (the ship 
recently discovered carrying children off the coast of Africa). Its owner 
has been identified as one of Germany's top footballers. Jonathan 
Akpobovie, who has been suspended until he goes to Benin to explain 
himself.

This is welcome, despite the fact that his team's sponsors, Volkswagen, 
probably know a thing or two about slave labour from the Nazi past.

The 170 children believed to have been on the boat were probably destined 
for the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast. More than half the world's 
cocoa comes from west African countries where slave labour is rife. So for 
God's (or rather, humanity's) sake, try and give up chocolate (as a 
diabetic, I have little choice).

Or try an ethical brand, like Divine, produced by co-operatives carefully 
monitored for fair trade. Sadly, at my local Co-op, it has been "delisted" 
(i.e. discontinued) though not at my local Somerfield. If they can stock 
it, isn't it all the more urgent for the co-op to do so?

And if you want to buy an Indian rug, make sure that it has an official 
fair trade label, as with many other products. Boycotts can work. Being an 
"ethical consumer" can help.

And lastly, write to Robin Cook. At the forthcoming UN conference on 
racism, African and other countries are proposing a resolution describing 
the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. To their credit, 
former slave-trading nations Spain and Portugal are supporting the 
resolution. Cook's minions are opposing this on the grounds that it 
couldn't be a crime because it wasn't illegal at the time.

That "rule" has been broken before, though. It was at a place called 
Nuremberg.

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