Modern Slavery

It may surprise many people to learn that there are estimated to be ca. 46 million slaves around the world today, and maybe many more.  Yes, not only does slavery still exist hundreds of years after it was declared illegal, but it is growing and the cost of a slave has plummeted.  That is because of world over-population and economic competition and the needs of modern industry for ever more production, sometimes for products that are restricted to remote locations and environments, where there is limited access and no supervision.

I happened to watch Steven Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln” recently, in which he recognized the need to abolish slavery before the US could really enter the modern world.  It is a dark and serious subject and treated appropriately, with an exceptional performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.  Yet that slavery was the institutionalized slavery of Black Americans.  The current slavery is quite different.

This article is partly based on a documentary entitled “Invisible Hands” that appeared on the Deutsche Welle network.  Wikipedia has a Global Slavery Index ( ) that lists the estimated number of slaves in each country.  By far the largest population of slaves is in India, over 14 million, although it is a small percentage of the total population (1.2%).  Most African countries have a residual number of slaves, and even the USA is listed as having 60,000 slaves and even Israel at 6,500. Most of these are illegal immigrants who have no means to obtain legal protection.  Their documents are taken from them by criminals and they are forced to work under threat of violence and/or death as sexual workers or in menial tasks.

The largest kind of slavery problems occur in West Africa, mostly in mining and agriculture.  For example, much of the chocolate that we eat is produced from plantations in West Africa that use illegal child slaves, often sold by their poverty-stricken families, and forced to cut cocoa beans for years without pay.  A French reporter who was investigating this situation a few years ago disappeared without trace.  A German reporter has recently produced a film entitled “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” that documents this slavery situation.  The sad fact is that the major chocolate companies signed an agreement several years ago to stop using slavery in the collection of chocolate, but they have obviously not kept their pledge.

Another place where there is terrible slave labour conditions is in the mining of tantalum, a rare metal that occurs in West Africa, where children and young men are worked as slaves in mines under terrible conditions controlled by armed soldiers.  If there is any accident they are left to die because it is too expensive to remove them and treat them. Tantalum is used in smart phones. This is in addition to the better known slavery that occurs in gold and diamond mining in Africa.

In India, the slavery often occurs when whole villages are owned by someone and the villagers are treated as slaves in exchange for allowing them to continue to live there. Most of the slaves in India work in brick making, using mud, that makes construction in India both cheap and dangerous. Notably most countries do not act against their domestic slavery because it is not profitable to do so.  West African countries have little leverage against the chocolate conglomerates and the Indian Government cannot stop the slavery in brick making for fear of causing a rises in the price of construction.  It is mostly private anti-slavery organizations that work slowly and deliberately against these manifestations of modern slavery.


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