SPECIAL FEATURE: The Enduring Fact of Slavery

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By Tina Davis

In 2005 I was asked to work on an international documentary film about modern slavery. I knew a bit about human trafficking and child labor, but I really had no clue about the scope of slavery in today's world. When I heard the word "slavery," the images that came to mind were pictures from my schoolbooks of slave ships and people in chains. It was not something I associated with our times.

I then spent two years traveling to some 10 countries investigating modern slavery. I met with experts and people who either were slaves or had been enslaved, trying to understand both the causes and effects of this horrible crime, as well as possible solutions. Investigating slavery has taught me more about freedom than anything else.

According to the international antislavery organization Free the Slaves, there are 27 million people living in slavery around the world at this very moment--people trapped and held against their will, forced to work and not paid for their labor; people who can't just walk away. This is the highest number of people ever to be enslaved at one time in history, more than the entire amount of people enslaved during the 350-year period of the transatlantic slave trade. This is the reality even though slavery is illegal in every country in the world today. So how is this possible?

Endless numbers of people live in conditions of extreme vulnerability as a result of poverty, conflict, natural disasters and other causes. Their vulnerability makes them easy prey for slaveholders who only have one thing in mind: profit. The mechanisms of slavery are very similar regardless of whether it happens in the UK, in Cambodia or any other place in the world. Usually people are lured by the promise of a job; they are asked to take a journey with the people who hire them, and only once they have arrived at their destination does the brutal reality of their enslavement become clear. They are forced to work for no pay beyond subsistence, often in very dire conditions. They are controlled by violence and unable to leave. The traditional chains of slavery are gone, but they are bound by psychological chains of fear, threat and oppression that are just as powerful.

Slavery is a global phenomenon. There are, for example, an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people brought to the US each year to be used as slaves.

In making the documentary we spotlighted different forms of slavery that exist today. We filmed human stories of people who had been held in child sex slavery in Cambodia, as child soldiers in northern Uganda, in bonded labor in India, in sex trafficking in Moldova and in domestic slavery in France. Most of these stories were of people who had managed to get free of slavery and were now rebuilding their lives. Their strength and resilience amazed me. Some were even using their newfound freedom to help liberate others from the same horrific plight they had endured.

Even though the individuals we met were from different parts of the world and had been forced into different forms of slavery, their personal experiences were surprisingly similar. The way their personalities had been systematically broken so that they would obey their slaveholders, the intense fear that kept them trapped, the shame they carried for some of the things they had been forced to do, and the strong wish for freedom that had kept them alive.

Vulnerable Lives

India was the first place we visited, where I saw what slavery looks like in real life. In a brickworks in the remote countryside of Uttar Pradesh, whole families lived in tiny makeshift huts. It felt like being a hundred years back in time. These were people trapped in debt bondage, a common form of slavery in India today. A contractor comes and offers them work and gives them a small advance. They are then transported to another part of the country unfamiliar to them. People in this form of bondage are mostly illiterate and lack understanding about the workings of money, loans and interest. They are told they have to work off the advance before they are paid any wages. The advance sum can be as small as $20, and yet whole families often end up working year in and year out without clearing this debt. In some cases they get a small allowance for food. If they complain or try to leave, they are beaten. However long they work, their slaveholders decide that the debt just never gets paid off.

We filmed here every day for about a month, and we soon got into the same monotonous daily rhythm as the slaves. We would find silly things to laugh about together, and they enjoyed the interest we showed in their work. Soon my small team and I became part of the scenery. They would notice when I was challenged by the intense heat and offer me water, and they offered to share whatever little food they had with us. The slaves had to perform very hard labor in the boiling heat every day amongst endless rows of bricks in what seemed like the world's most forgotten place. Soon the days started to blend into each other, and we lost our sense of time. After a while we started feeling trapped too. Then the day came when we were to leave. We said our goodbyes, got into the car, and as we drove away, I experienced the most painful moment of all during my period of working with slavery. I knew we could go to the hotel, take a warm shower, and then fly back home. The slaves who had become our friends could not leave, and we couldn't do anything there and then to help them without jeopardizing their safety. We could walk away and go back to our lives in freedom. They were stuck there.

Slavery is not something that affects only people from developing countries. And vulnerable life situations are not the only factor that put people at risk. Slavery only becomes possible when there is an absence of the rule of law--weak law implementation and law enforcement as well as corruption. This, together with the enormous numbers of vulnerable people around the world, explains why there are as many as 27 million slaves today.

But the situation is far from hopeless. There are concrete solutions to the problem of slavery. Around the world there are courageous people working on the ground to liberate and rehabilitate slaves.
Often they work in very dangerous situations, and they work not only to free slaves but also to help build sustainable freedom for them. Their efforts are giving former slaves the chance to build lives of dignity, financial autonomy and citizenship.

According to Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves, the average cost of building sustainable freedom for a former slave is US$400. A person who has been liberated through this process is able to be productively reintegrated into their local community.

Slave labor generates some US$40 billion of the global economy. But this is only a tiny portion of the total global economy. Unlike at other periods in history, the global economy does not depend on slave labor. There is wide moral agreement around the world that slavery is unacceptable. Slavery is illegal in every country of the world, and many of the necessary mechanisms to tackle slavery are in place. All of these factors mean that it is now a very realistic goal to finally eradicate slavery once and for all, for the first time in history.

A major obstacle in achieving a slave-free world is the lack of public awareness. It is ignorance of the slavery in our own backyards that allows it to thrive. But as awareness of the problem grows and slavery is exposed, we can begin to really eradicate it with the goal to secure freedom for all. If we fail to do this, I wonder, can any of us be truly free?

* Tina Davis is a Norwegian documentary-maker, writer and TV producer. She is also a board member of the Norwegian Anti-Slavery Association. Her documentary Modern Slavery won the award for Best Documentary in 2009 at the Norwegian National Amanda Film Awards and the Special Recognition Award in 2010 at Human Doc International Film Festival in Poland. She is currently writing a book about human trafficking. [Courtesy of SGI Quarterly July 2011]

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