Slavery undergirds global economy
by Robert Taliaferro
A recent conservative estimate sets the number in excess of 30 million souls who, as slaves, contribute approximately $15 to $20 billion a year to the global economy. They mine diamonds and gold; they harvest the beans that will eventually reach Western markets as coffee or cocoa; they pick our fruits and vegetables, and they sew the clothes that we wear. Despite international laws that are tepidly enforced, few who are caught up in slavery are able to escape its harsh realities.
Slaves are of Eastern European extraction, and people of color; they are bought and sold in nearly every country of the world--including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Western Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and Israel--with near impunity. They are commodities that epitomize and embody many of the negative features of globalization, especially in light of trade agreements like NAFTA.
Overall, the largest number of slaves in the world are known as "debt slaves," a practice which is most prevalent in countries like India and Pakistan. Debt slaves are often inter-generational, some becoming slaves before they were born due to debts incurred by their parents, grandparents, or even great grandparents. Debt slaves can pass on the "alleged" incurred debts in the post-Civil War period in the U.S. Former slaveholders worked former slaves through sharecropping on the same plantations that they had worked for generations as property.
One of the ironies of history is that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution allowed slavery to exist in the country if a person is convicted of a crime. The U.S. is the only Western country to still include thus as an official doctrine of law.
In southern India, whole towns of Indian women vie to be subjected to living organ harvesting so that they can pay off debts or feed their families. Girls as young as 10 are married off in order for a family to gain a "bride price"; children are sold by their parents to brothels in countries like Thailand and Singapore. Men, women and children from impoverished countries throughout the world are being forced on a daily basis into the international sex trade.
Even newborns are victimized due to baby trafficking. Shady adoption practices in the U.S. and Europe place hundreds of children in homes every year at a healthy profit for middlemen. These children may have been kidnapped from their biological families, who do not have the resources to recover their missing child.
Billions of dollars are generated every year through various forms of slave labor. Yet, despite those numbers, the overwhelming majority of the slave-candidates subsist on less than a few hundred dollars a year. With civil wars destroying property and crops, families often subject themselves voluntarily to slavery so that they can feed themselves, and their families.
Even in the U.S. acts of slavery exist in subtler forms, the actions of companies like Taco Bell and Wal-Mart promulgate subtle forms of slavery. The lack of unionization in many of those companies allows for them to perpetrate some of the main cornerstones of slavery: low wages, substandard working conditions that may even border on criminally dangerous, and discriminatory practices to select members of their work force. With many undocumented workers, this condition is often exacerbated.
NAFTA has done its part to promulgate slavery by driving millions of peasant farmers in Mexico out of business and off of land that may have been in their families for generations. This causes them to seek a living as undocumented workers in the U.S. Then, like in the "emancipated" plantations or company towns of old, they are charged for everything from water to a slice of ground that they call home, until even those meager earnings are gone.
In a recent report the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) estimated that about 10-15% of farmworkers in the U.S. are essentially being held and worked as slaves. Francisco Martinez and his comrades felt as if they were merchandise. He wrote, "Did I want to die incarcerated on this farm or escape?" Martinez was one of the lucky few who escaped, but for every one that escapes, tens of others are enslaved. Now, as a member of CIW, he works to free others. (See NEWS & LETTERS, March 2003, Hunger Strike for Taco Bell Boycott)
To end slavery, governments must be more proactive in the prosecution of slavers; trade agreements have to define and enforce fairness and parity for all peoples; workers must be more aggressive in asserting that they have inalienable rights to be free from the abuse of slavery; and, consumers must be more aware of the plight of those people who make the products that they buy, and they must demand that companies ensure that the rights of their workers are not abridged.
You see, the struggle for freedom begins with that one person who decides that enslavement is inherently wrong, and that freedom for others sometimes means making sacrifices yourself.
Published by News and Letters Committees