Slavery or What Happens to a Dream Deferred

Written by admin on May 21st, 2011



In this era of heightened awareness of human rights, the title looks like a blasphemy, but bitter truth is often more repugnant than fiction. For instance, presently, a slave costs 1/38th of the price 160 years ago, making the business very profitable with a ROI of 8 times.


Throughout history (and even now, though outside law in almost all the countries) and across cultures, humans have been exploiting their own kind in many forms, the omnibus term for which is slavery. No timeline can be drawn to show its formation, growth and decline because of the diversity of its forms and close relationship with  a human attribute, domination. It can also be argued that there is no decline in sight, at best the practice is standing still, in status quo. It was already there, as an established institution in one of  the earliest written records, the law code of Hammurabi (Mesopotamia, ca 18th century BCE) . Interestingly, one of the roots of the English word “slave” is the medieval Latin sclavus referring to the peoples of  eastern and central Europe, as many of these people had been captured and then sold as slaves. The other roots are: the medieval English sclave, the old French esclave and the early Greek sklabos. Also, there are sklabenoi Slavs of  Slavic origin, which again is similar to the old Russian slovene, the name of an east Slavic tribe. A  Convention on Slavery held in 1926  defined it as  “…the status and/or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised…” It would appear from this definition that slaves cannot leave who supposedly own them, nor can they leave their master or the place where they are held without  an explicit permission to do so. It follows therefore (hypothetically, so to say) that they would be restored to their owners and that they would be returned to their owners should they escape. Thus a system of slavery compared to the isolated instances of bonded or forced labour in any society would require official, legal recognition of ownership, or widespread unrecorded agreements from local authorities by masters who wield some influence because of their social and/or economic status. The first is a situation not exactly tenable at present while the second is possible when the powers that be look the other way. An illustration of this is the recent (2007) press report of  captive brick kiln workers in  the People’s Republic of (Communist) China.


According to the International Labour Office (ILO) forced labour is “all work or service which is extracted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”. There are, of course, exceptions to this, such as, compulsory military service or conscription, forced labour to which convicted criminals are subjected to, essential services needed by a state during emergencies and community services to be performed by an individual (ordered by the judiciary) for minor infractions of the law. Using their own defining terms, the Internanational Labour Organization insist that all child labour is nothing but forced labour. While that makes sense upto a point (child labour also brings monetary benefits to the family) there are sections of people who use the word slavery in unusual contexts. Using the notion of economic coercion, some anarchists, communists and socialists denounce many forms of employment as wage slavery or economic slavery where employees are paid significantly low wages or given money not enough for sustenance, thus leaving them in perpetually semi-starved conditions. Anarcho-capitalists and libertarians compare taxes imposed by governments on people as tributes extracted from slaves. Likewise, some conscientious objectors to drafting regard compulsory military service as a form of slavery. Not to be left behind are some animal rights activists who argue that the conditions of animals kept by humans are generally not different from those of the slaves. The word serf (as it is presently used) is, however, not the same as slave. It is is so because serfs in the middle ages were believed to possess rights as human beings as opposed to the slaves who had none whatsoever and were considered as things or properties like cattles. Slaves were people owned and controlled by others in a manner which excluded almost all the rights and the freedom of movement. They were not paid for their labour, excepting food, clothing and shelter needed for  survival. In other words, slavery was a systematic exploitation of the work done by and services performed by someone else without consent and payment.


From a socio-economic point of view, slavery is a system depriving an individual of all personal freedom and forcing the person to work or render services without paying for it, and considering the individual as the property or chattel of someone or a household. (Hence the term chattel slave.) From the time of their capture or births to slave parents or purchase from slave marts, they were held against their will and were not free to leave or to refuse work for which they receive no wages. It is for these reasons slaves are also called unfree labourers. As regards  its prevalence in modern times, it is believed that there are currently 27 million people in the world under some form of slavery practiced in secret. As recently as August 2007, Mauritania in western Africa passed a law proclaiming slavery as a criminal act, where nearly 600,000 of  its men, women and children (20 percent of the population) are considered to be bonded labourers if not slaves. A recent study in its neighbouring state of Nigeria revealed that over 800,000 people there or about 8 percent of its population are still slaves.


Trafficking   in  people


Trafficking in people or human trafficking is yet another form of slavery, and is also known as sex trafficking because most of the victims are women and children who are forced to become prostitutes. It is, however, different from what is called smuggling of people, in which a fee is charged for helping the people to cross the borders of the country they intend to settle down illegally. After that, the people are free to do whatever they want. Not so are the victims of trafficking who remain permanently enslaved. The victims of trafficking are either tricked by the lure of false promises or simply forced to participate. Coercive tactics employed by the traffickers to control their victims include deception, fraud, intimidation, isolation, threat and use of physical force. They also take the advantage of debt bonding and even go to the extent of  force-feeding their victims with drugs of abuse. Besides women and children forced into prostitution, their other victims include men, women and children who are forced to do manual work under hazardous conditions. The numbers of such people trafficked illegally are not known, but a report published in 2003 by the U S Government states that 800,000 to 900,000 people worldwide are taken in this manner across borders each year, not including those who are trafficked within a country.


Economic  models


There have been attempts by economists to create models of economic conditions during which  slavery and its milder forms like serfdom prevail or become moribund, especially in agrarian contexts. It has been found that when land is abundant but labour is not (and freemen demand high wages) slaves are preferred as labourers. If, however, labour is abundant and land is not, then freemen labourers are willing to work for low wages, and landholders prefer to engage them. Under such conditions, slaves are relatively costly due to the expenses for their maintenance and the wages of the supervisors guarding them. In the opinion of the economists, for this reason slavery (and its less harsh version serfdom) gradually decreased in Europe as the population increased. It appeared in the Americas and was reintroduced in Russia when large sparsely populated new land areas were brought under cultivation. Yet another finding is that 

slavery was more common when the work was relatively simple, such as large scale growing of a single crop, and did not require close supervision. For complex tasks, however, it was much more difficult and costly to check that the slaves were carrying out their tasks properly. In view of this, slavery was found to be decreasing with technological advancements which required employment of more skilled people at high wages vis-a-vis the low maintenance cost of slaves. Cultures with institutionalised slavery were thus found to be low in technological advancement, since the emphasis was on increasing the number of slaves and not on finding new methods of  production or new sources of energy. It was for this reason a wide gap separated theoretical knowledge and learning from physical labor and manufacturing in ancient Greek and Roman cultures.


From 1945 and in the 1960s and 70s, known as the development decades especially, economists debated over issues concerning the relationship between unfree labour and capitalist production. In the Indian context, the discussion mainly dealt with the agrarian transition that was going on at that time, and the role of unfree labour therein. Stated simply, unfree labour is the modern term (or euphemism) for slavery. Unlike slaves of yore, they are not the people of a vanquished state nor prisoners of war, but their plight is just the same. Such people are employed against their will by the threat of destitution, detention, violence (including death), or other extreme hardship to themselves, or to members of their families. The term forced labour can also be used to describe these forms of employment, but usually violence is

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