Slavery abolished, Really??

Slavery was abolished in the 19th Century, right?  Sorry, wrong! But isn’t that what we were taught in history?!What is slavery?

When we learnt about slavery in school history we were given to understand that slaves were people shipped from African countries to America and other Western countries or used within their own countries which were colonies of Western countries eg Britain colonising South Africa. These people were expected to work for no pay, frequently under harsh conditions and were owned (purchased) by their employers. Agreed! That form of slavery was gradually abolished from early in the 19th Century but there is still a lot of illegal slavery taking place.

First consider the various definitions of slavery:

  1. Slave (noun) – a person who is owned by someone
  2. slave, striver, hard worker (noun) – someone who works as hard as a slave
  3. slave (noun) – someone entirely dominated by some influence or person; “a slave to fashion”; “a slave to cocaine”; “his mother was his abject slave”
  4. slave, break one’s back, buckle down, knuckle down (verb) – work very hard, like a slave

The first definition is as we were taught, that slaves were owned and could not go free except in certain circumstances. Believe it or not, there are still slaves in this category today. The ‘worst’ country currently is Mauritania which finally criminalised slavery in 2007 but it has not made much difference. Only one person has been charged and convicted in the past 9 years!! In 2015 it was estimated that there were still over 43 000 slaves in the country, equalling a little over 1% of the total population. Take a look at this site where you will find a better view of the picture that I have included here.

Where is it found today and in what forms?

I was shocked to learn from a website that in the region of 30million people are locked into modern slavery in the world today. In the picture here the top 25 countries with slaves are listed and 12 are in Africa! Most slaves were transported from Africa to the West during the 17th – 19th Centuries. In the African countries, there were protests and pressure was imposed on the various western governments to abolish slavery and they finally did in the 19th Century. Now, those same African countries are among the leading ‘slave countries’ of the world. Hard to believe that the continent from which thousands were taken away as slaves now uses their own people as slaves.

This article is about is Modern Slavery. I was inspired to write it after hearing 2 sermons by 2 different people who, preaching on being a slave to God, each said something similar about slavery being abolished 200 years ago.  We call it by many names, but it amounts to the same thing: modern day slavery. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it continues to thrive because so many of us don’t understand it, don’t want to think about it, don’t know how to change it. It includes child and women labour, farm and domestic workers who are paid either in kind or a pittance in cash, domestic violence, human trafficking & sex slaves, forced marriage, drug runners and debt bondage. Many of these are included in definition 1 but all of them fit into definitions 3 & 4.

Child & Woman Labour

This is possibly one of the most wide-spread forms of slavery in the world. It is most prevalent in Asia and Africa but other countries are not immune. For centuries there were Workhouses in England and Ireland where women and children were housed and used to do menial and/or heavy work and not paid. Many were closed in the 1930s but some, in Ireland, continued until the mid 20thC. Today, the use of children, some as young 7, (and poor women) as slave labour is very prevalent, particularly in the ‘Rag Trade’. Just recently, in Newcastle, KZN, a factory was investigated and closed down when it was found that women were employed on very long shifts and locked into the building. It came to the notice of the police when one woman went into labour and could not get out of the building. Due to this form of cheap or even free labour, China has grown its manufacturing industry exponentially in the past few years. In the movie, Lion, one learns of women whose task it is to carry large rocks and clearly it is equivalent to slave labour when one sees their living conditions.

Farm and Domestic Workers

I have put these 2 groups together as they have similar problems.  South Africa (SA) has for centuries employed both domestic, including gardeners, and farm workers. Sadly, even today, many of these people are employed in almost slave-like conditions, working long hours and paid a pittance. Some arm workers are paid in kind only. Although there is now a minimum wage for domestic workers who work for more than 27 hours in a month it is both very low and often ignored. Recently, I spoke to a woman who is required to work 7 days a week from early to late with 1 Sunday off a month. She is paid R500 a month! She says that she stays as there is no other work available. This is a major problem in SA with our extremely high unemployment and low growth rates. Employers are aware of the fact that if an employee is not happy and wants to leave there are many more who will take their place and work ‘like a slave.’

Domestic Violence

This may seem a strange group to be included as slaves but if you consider definition 3 above – ‘someone entirely dominated by some influence or person’ they fit in perfectly. Men, women and children who experience domestic violence are totally dominated by another person. Many ask battered adults why they stay in a relationship. It is because they have been so dominated and made to feel so totally useless and inferior that they become convinced that they cannot manage outside the relationship. The saddest part is that children who are in the situation of domestic violence are truly slaves to their dominators. They are too small to fight back or to leave the situation and usually unable to talk to anyone about it as they are told “this is our secret”

Forced Marriage – Adults & Children

“Everyone, whatever their religion or belief, has the right to choose whether to get married and who they want to marry. But in some cases – more often than we might think – people are forced into marriage. Sometimes it might be to someone they don’t like or have never even met. Often they are too young to get married (sometimes as young as 12 or 13) or don’t feel ready to marry at all. And sometimes it might be that they are lesbian or gay and do not want to marry someone of the opposite sex.”  Whether children or adult these people are totally dominated by a person or persons such as their parents and are not given the option to refuse the marriage arrangement. Once again it is the children who suffer most. In many instances the marriage is forced through poverty of the child’s family who sell their child to older men. (It is usually young girls who are sold in this way) Once sold they are now owned by the purchaser who has full control over them. The SA tradition of ukuthwala, the forced marriage of girls as young as 12 to adult men, is still practiced in some remote villages in Eastern and Western Cape provinces, leaving these girls vulnerable to forced labour and sex slavery.

Human Trafficking and Sex Slaves

Human trafficking is currently the second largest form of organised crime worldwide. An estimated 45.8 million people are victims of this horrendous crime. In every country people are exploited against their will, controlled by threats, debt, and violence. So what then is human trafficking? Simply defined, human trafficking is forcing or manipulating a person against their will into any form of exploitation, usually sexual, within their own country or across borders. The victims are held captive and forced to “work” for their traffickers, often in inhumane and degrading circumstances.

It is well documented that South Africa is a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking.

South African children are subjected to trafficking mainly within the country, recruited from poor rural areas and brought to and moved between urban centres such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Bloemfontein.

Girls are subjected to sex trafficking and domestic servitude and boys are forced to work in street vending, food service, begging, criminal activities, and agriculture.

Reports of forced begging have increased since 2013 and some forced begging involved children with disabilities.

 Who is vulnerable to trafficking?

Although anyone can fall victim to human trafficking; minorities, displaced persons, people living in abject poverty, victims of violence and homelessness and other marginalised groups are most vulnerable. Traffickers often take advantage of these people’s vulnerabilities and unmet needs.

According to the UN Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC) a third of trafficking victims are children and over half of all victims are female. 

Who are traffickers?

Traffickers can be any age, gender, ethnicity or nationality. But the UNODC 2014 report states that 72% of people convicted of human trafficking are male. In many cases traffickers are related to or are close acquaintances of those they are exploiting. 

How much money is made from human trafficking?

The International Labour Organisation estimates that globally, a staggering R1.9 trillion is generated from illegal human trafficking each year. Two-thirds of this profit is derived from sexual exploitation and the remaining third from forced labour

Drug Runners or Mules

Unemployed people, usually young women, are told by a syndicate member that they can get a good job in a particular country. Being desperate they are willing to believe these people and travel to a foreign country, usually in South America or Asia. Before they know what has happened they have been forced to carry drugs in a number of possible ways – packed into the lining of their luggage, on their person, in their private orifices or swallowed, the most dangerous method. Once they have been duped by the syndicate there is no going back. They are ‘completely under the influence of a person or group.’ If they are caught it means a heavy prison sentence or even death. Once again, it is the ‘slave’ who suffers and not the Kingpins who somehow manage to remain anonymous.

Debt Bondage

This is financial slavery and, once again, it affects the poor to the greatest degree. Agreed there are many who earn high salaries and have wealth from other sources who go into debt bondage but that is usually due to bad financial management and/or greed. The poor are forced to borrow from loan sharks and to buy on credit or lay-by just to survive. These forms of financing gradually become a vicious circle with ridiculous interest rates. There may be laws requiring retailers and banks to check a person’s credit rating before giving a loan or selling a piece of furniture. The law also requires the consequences of missing repayments to be explained in simple language but, as long as this is not ‘policed’, people are trapped into new debt levels.  A recent report told of a woman who had bought a stove for R4999. With all the interest, it would finally cost around R10 000 if monthly payments are all made on time BUT she missed 2 and suddenly she still owes R18 000! Once again, these people are under the influence of a person or circumstance – they are slaves to debt.

In the human trafficking context, this refers to a situation where a victim has been forced/coerced into travelling some distance, could be local or across international borders. The travel expenses are covered by the trafficker. When the victim arrives at the destination, she is told by the trafficker that she needs to repay the “debt” incurred by paying for her transportation. This “debt” is then magnified into a huge global amount and it is at this stage that the victim’s ID document or passport is taken by the traffickers. She is told that she will pay off the “debt” by working so all the money she earns actually goes towards paying off the “debt”, trapping her even more tightly into the enforced slavery.

Sadly, it is clear that slavery is alive and well around the world and at all levels of society. Those of us who are not in any of these situations find it hard to believe, similarly to the ordinary 1930s/40s German or 1960 – 90 White South African who refused to believe what was happening to fellow citizens. Let us open our eyes and hearts to what is happening to those suffering in slavery and not become apathetic onlookers. Let us start with those whom we employ.


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