SLAVERY SURVIVES, DESPITE UNIVERSAL ABOLITION
by Roman Kupchinsky
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
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 coproducer 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
Radio Free Europe. "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."
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
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
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
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.
Nejeya 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, Nejeya
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
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."
TRAFFICKERS PREY ON EASTERN EUROPEANS
is a 30-year-old mother from Ukraine who left behind her husband and two young
children to take what she was told would be a job in Italy as a cleaner.
The recruiters who originally promised her a high-paying salary were men
who posed as representatives of a legitimate employment agency. Maria says they
gained her trust because they looked professional and persuasive.
"The process I went through to get there was normal. Everything looked
fine. There were two other girls with me. They were from the same region, but I
didn't know them. I was going [to Italy] to work as a housekeeper. In Ukraine,
they told me already that I would work either as a housekeeper or work in a bar
Maria says her nightmare began after she and the other women arrived in
Italy and were met by several suspicious men. They were human traffickers in the
illegal global sex industry.
"We went there and arrived in one city. They took us to a building on the
outskirts of the city and they told us to clean off, to relax from the travel.
Later, they confronted us with the fact that we would be providing sex services.
It is a shock for a human being. Escape from there was impossible. The windows
were barred and
was the constant presence of a guard," Maria said.
One man in the building told Maria he had "bought" her for several
hundred dollars. He said she owed him money for the cost of the airplane ticket
and would have to work for him until the debt was repaid.
For the next nine months, Maria was forced against her will to work as a
prostitute. Sometimes she was forced to have sex with 10 different men within a
single day. She was beaten brutally whenever she refused. And if a customer
complained about her performance, the brothel owner added a fine to her debt --
prolonging her sentence as a sex slave.
It was only when the brothel was raided by Italian police that Maria was
freed from captivity. Authorities in Italy charged her with prostitution and
deported her back to Ukraine.
Maria's story is a common one in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet
republics. Trafficking from the region for sexual exploitation has become so
common since the early 1990s that it is considered by experts as a distinct wave
in the global sex trade.
The U.S. State Department estimates that 800,000 people are trafficked
against their will across international borders every year and that millions
more are trafficked internally.
John Miller directs the U.S. State Department's Office for Monitoring and
Combating Trafficking in Persons.
"Information on slavery is very inexact. But we believe that the majority
of slave victims -- in the neighborhood of 80 percent --are the female gender,
and that around 50 percent are children. We believe that the largest category of
slavery is sex slavery. This is not to minimize other large categories --
domestic servitude slavery,
labor in farms and factory slavery, child soldier slavery," Miller said.
Organized criminal groups have created intricate transport routes to move
women to different countries. Most of these routes --whether over land, sea, or
air -- originally were established by weapon and drug smuggling syndicates.
The so-called "Eastern Route" through Poland and into Germany is a key
overland corridor for smuggling women into the European Union from Russia,
Ukraine, Romania, and the Baltics. The cities of Prague, Amsterdam, and
Frankfurt also are common destinations. Large numbers of these women also
reportedly end up in Italy, Greece, Belgium, Austria, and France.
The so-called "Balkan route" is another notorious path for sex-trade
traffickers. It moves through Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Albania,
Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo.
A third major trafficking route passes through southern Bulgaria into Greece. Eastern European
women, especially Ukrainians, also end up in Turkey after traveling overland
through Georgia and Bulgaria, or after crossing the Black Sea on boats from the
Ukrainian port of Odessa.
Meanwhile, the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia
have emerged in recent years as new recruitment zones -- with women being moved
through Central Europe to the EU or to the Middle East and China.
Israel, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Thailand, China, and Japan
also are considered key destinations for criminal groups that smuggle women for
Miller, who is responsible for the State Department's annual report on
trafficking in persons, says Canada and the United States also are becoming
"Human trafficking is synonymous with slavery. Human trafficking relies
on coercion and exploitation. It thrives on converting hope to fear. It's
maintained through violence. The trade in people is a major source of revenue --
in the billions [of dollars per year] -- for organized crime, along with the
drug trade and the arms trade. Let there be no misunderstanding. Modern slavery
plagues every country in the world -- including the United States," Miller said.
Canadian-based journalist Viktor Malarek is the author of "Natashas: The
New Global Sex Trade." His book documents how criminal groups have increasingly
preyed upon the hopes of young women like Maria since the collapse of the Berlin
Wall and the Soviet Union.
Malarek says that in places like Israel and Turkey, the name Natasha has
become synonymous with prostitutes or victims of the sex trade from all the
former communist countries of Eastern Europe --whether they are from Bulgaria,
Romania, Moldova, Ukraine or Russia. And regardless of their nationalities,
brothel owners and their customers usually refer to these women as "Russians."
Malarek says not all of those caught up in the international sex trade
are innocent and naive women who have been led astray. He says police and
government officials stress that some women willingly enter the sex trade. But
he says the vast majority of Eastern European women lured into the trade are not
aware of the nature of sex slavery or the conditions they will work in.
Malarek concludes that virtually every city, town and village in Eastern
and Central Europe has seen some of its girls and women disappear -- becoming
expendable pawns in the sex business.
It has been several years now since Maria returned to her home in
Ukraine. She still has not told her family about her ordeal in Italy. She says
she is unsure if she ever will be able to tell her husband the truth.
"It was not worth it. What is important in life is family -- my children and my husband -- in spite
of everything. At the beginning, the desire for material wealth was at the front
of my mind and family came in second place. But after what happened, my
priorities have been reversed," Maria said.
Maria now offers advice to other young women who are being recruited for
jobs abroad as a cleaners, nannies, bartenders, waitresses or models. She says
before traveling, women should think long and hard about where they are going,
why they have received the job offer, and what they expect to happen to them
once they leave home.
Synovitz. RFE/RL contributed to this
Roman Kupchinsky, is the editor
of "Crime, Corruption & Terrorism Watch" which
is published by Radio Free Europe (http://www.rferl.org/). His reports,
which are based on a variety of sources, pinpoint emerging trends and activities
related to networks of organized crime and terrorism. Copyright
(c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. All rights
herein with author's consent.
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