Slavery Survives, Despite Universal Abolition
Tuesday, August 30, 2005 9:25 AM

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, has proclaimed 23 August as International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. The date commemorates a revolt in 1791 by slaves in what is now Haiti -- an event considered a decisive victory of slaves against their oppressors. But despite laws in all of the world's countries against slavery, the United Nations says the practice continues in illegal underground forms.

Nadeem has spent most of his life hunched over a carpet loom in Lahore, Pakistan, trying to pay off a loan given to his parents years ago.

His hands are scarred and callused from the repetition of tying thousands of knots every day. His eyesight is weakened from 14-hour work shifts in a dark room. Poor ventilation has left his lungs filled with wool fibers and dust.

"I'm 12 years old and I've been working since I was 4," Nadeem says. "To start with, I had [about $12 worth of Pakistani] rupees as a bonded debt to pay off. Now it has risen to [about $300], without my family getting any more money. The owner [of the carpet loom] increases our debt by [about $50] for each mistake."

Nadeem is one of thousands of children who work as bonded laborers in Pakistan's carpet industry. As in most countries, bonded child labor is illegal in Pakistan. But enforcement of that law is sporadic. Human rights activists complain that corrupt local police often accept bribes from business owners who use bonded child laborers in exchange for turning a blind eye to the practice. American filmmaker Robin Romano has documented similar stories from child laborers around the world during his five years of work as the co-producer of a documentary film called "Stolen Childhoods."

In one interview granted to the filmmaker on condition of anonymity, the owner of a carpet factory in Pakistan spoke frankly about how bonded children are disciplined and traded within the industry.

"It's common for us business owners to exchange children," the man said. "Children are more obedient and work harder that way. We tie the child up for three or four hours to teach it not to run away. But those children who are very disobedient -- of course such children have to be chained up and beaten."

Romano is convinced that bonded debts are a hidden way for children from poor families to be bought and sold as slaves.

His film asserts that there are today more than 240 million child laborers beneath the age of 14 in the world -- and that most work under conditions of slavery.

"One of the forms of modern slavery that exists in Afghanistan and in Pakistan is a form that they call bonded labor [or debt bondage]," Romano told RFE/RL. "People who have less than nothing are forced to take loans on their children to survive. That child is then locked into a never-ending cycle of slavery. The loan invariably is never repaid. The middle man and the slave owners keep finding ways to keep the child bonded."

Slavery By Any Other Name...

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat-Iowa) is a leading author of American legislation aimed at fighting international child labor. Like Romano, he says abusive child-labor practices today are a kind of modern slavery.

"Child labor is the last form of slavery in the world. I mean, what's a slave?" Harkin said. "A slave is someone that has no voice, no vote, no control over his own property. No control over his own livelihood. That's what these child laborers are. I think there's a recognition in the world community that this is just unacceptable practice -- that it really is akin to slavery. And a country that would practice slavery openly -- of course, it would be kicked out of the community of nations. Well, we have to make this same thing apply to child labor."

UNICEF, the UN children's agency, has made child labor a top concern. UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara says UN officials usually are cautious about using the word "slavery." But he says bonded child labor is recognized as a form of slavery because the children usually become the victims of exploitation, abuse, and even sexual assault.

"The word 'slavery' has a strong stigma attached to it," Vergara said. "That's why we are careful when we use it. But there is no question [about] bonded labor. And we know [there are] millions of children who work under very difficult and horrific circumstances. And some of them are included in what we call virtual slavery."

Not Just Children

Human rights activists argue that modern-day slavery is not limited to extreme forms of child labor. They say it is a practice that also affects adults -- those who are forced by poverty to take low-paying jobs that leave them trapped in slave-like conditions.

Forced labor affects those people who are illegally recruited by individuals, criminal groups, and even governments or political parties. They are then made to work against their will, usually under threat of violence or other penalties.

Human trafficking is the transport or trade of people from one country to another -- often for the purpose of selling them against their will into the sex trade or forcing them into other degrading work.

"Slavery by descent" is a term used to describe those born into an economic class or from an ethnic group that is viewed by others as exploitable.

Some activists also argue that forced marriage is a form of slavery because women and young girls often are "sold" for a dowry and forced against their will into a life of servitude and physical abuse. The UN, however, classifies forced marriage as a "harmful traditional practice" that often leads to violations of human rights.

Doctor Fahima Saadat provides medical care for Afghan children and their parents at the Khurasan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan. She says she has treated many poor Afghan workers who have been physically or sexually abused by employers who keep them in conditions of virtual slavery.

Saadat relates the story of a 20-year-old Afghan woman named Najeya. With her father debilitated by a kidney operation and her mother too old to work, Najeya took a job as a cleaner at the home of a wealthy man in Peshawar.

Najeya came to Saadat with complaints of pain and learned from medical tests that she was pregnant. She then broke down and confessed she was being sexually abused by her employer on a regular basis. She threatened to commit suicide to prevent her family and others from discovering her pregnancy -- saying she preferred death to shame.

Yet, Saddat says that after secretly receiving an abortion, Najeya returned to the same job -- saying she had no choice. "The one thing I can think of that is the cause of these stories is extreme poverty," Saddat said. "The desperation from living as a refugee in a foreign country. Although they are victims of sexual attacks, they still go back to the same job after treatment because they are obliged to do so."

Poverty Breeds Slavery

The London-based nongovernmental organization Anti-Slavery International says, despite its many variations, all forms of modern slavery share several common characteristics. 

One is that slaves are usually forced to work through mental or physical threats, and are either owned or controlled by a so-called "employer."

Modern-day slaves also are dehumanized and treated as a commodity. They are sometimes even bought or sold as property, much like the 19th-century "chattel slaves" who were traded on the open market and used to breed future generations of slaves.

Anti-Slavery International says slaves are also often physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.

Robin Romano concludes that modern slavery will continue to exist as long as there are economically desperate people and a lack of political will by authorities to enforce existing laws.

"A slave is a slave," Romano said. "And to call it either 'chattel slavery' or 'bonded slavery' or any other type of slavery -- it still means slavery. And that is where people are coerced against their will to do work that is inhumane, is undignified and is absolutely killing." (Ron Synovitz).

Cited from: Slavery Survives, Despite Universal Abolition, Ron Synovitz, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 30 August 2005.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.