Which societies still practice slavery?

Cultivated Europeans probably associate the word slavery with images of human markets in ancient Rome, of enslaved blacks in American cotton fields or of Jewish slave labor in German factories. No matter how far you look back into the past, slavery has been overcome and is not on the list of pressing problems in the world.

In reality human trafficking is rampant like an epidemic, but often in a modern form, which in my opinion justifies the term "new slavery": Far from any uncle Tom's hut romance, people are no longer just goods, but often even Disposable product that serves only one purpose: profit.

Traditional forms have also been preserved, as the Indian Meera had to experience. Their small village in the mountains of the state of Uttar Pradesh was still a village of slaves three years ago. At that time a social worker happened to come by and discovered the terrible web of hereditary bondage. It may have been in the time of the grandfathers or their great-grandfathers - few in the village could remember it - but at some point in the past families had to borrow money to ensure their survival. In return, they undertook unpaid work and in future only received a few rupees to buy rice. This "guilt" has been passed on from generation to generation. Five-year-olds were already pressing a hammer into their hands and having them grind boulders into sand in the quarry. Dust, flying stone fragments and carrying heavy loads made the villagers sick, caused silicosis (black lung disease), and ruined eyes and backs.

The social worker devised a radical plan: If ten of the women were willing to set aside one rupee per week from the starvation wages, he would contribute an entry fee and ensure the security of the savings. Meera was one of the brave ones. Three months later, the group had saved enough to be the first to trigger it. From now on, Meera was paid for her work and was able to contribute more money to the joint fund. Eight weeks later the second woman was released, after another four the third.

When the other group members saw their freedom within reach, they quickly declared any guilt null and void. Their "owners" did not put up with this and threatened the women with violence, but united they had the courage to resist. "You can kill me, but you cannot force me back into slavery," announced one of them. When they were chased out of the quarries, the women looked for paid work. Soon new groups formed to gain freedom. I had the opportunity to accompany the social worker to Meera's village twice; on the second visit, all residents were free and the children went to school.

Such actions do not always have a happy ending. Baldev, an Indian, lives barely a hundred kilometers from Meera's place. He, too, is a slave in bondage. When I first met him in 1997, he was plowing his master's field. He called him "my Halvaha", which means: "my plowman". I met Baldev again two years later and learned that an unexpected inheritance had allowed him to settle his debts. "We were free to do whatever we wanted. But the only worry I left was - what if one of our children got sick? If we had a bad harvest or the government wanted money from me? The landlord had us food every day given, not anymore. After a while I went to him and asked to take me back in. I didn't have to borrow any money from him, I was allowed to be his Halvaha again. Now I'm much less worried because I know what I have to do. " Without financial support and without the help of a social worker, Baldev was unable to meet the demands of freedom. The only advantage he could get from the situation was that his children didn't have to pay a hereditary debt.

Location advantage slavery

It may surprise many readers to find debt bondage and other forms of slavery in the 21st century. After all, human possession is prohibited worldwide. Yet in many countries there are slaves like Baldev whose life and limb belong to someone else. Their number can only be estimated - based on the synopsis of numerous reports from governmental and non-governmental organizations, I assume there are around 27 million slaves worldwide (see map on pages 28/29). The United Nations estimates that around four million people are sold to other countries by organized gangs each year; the net profit of these companies should be around seven billion euros.

Most slaves are in the Third World, where poverty, hunger and a steadily growing population diminish the value of the individual. In addition, social norms and traditions there often favor human property. In my opinion, the increasing slavery in developing countries also indirectly affects us citizens of western industrialized nations. When multinational corporations relocate production facilities to low-wage countries, they probably owe the low cost of the location there to slave labor: serfs produce cheap rice for the workers in chip or clothing factories, and unfree prostitutes serve them as consumer goods. However, there is still no data on this aspect of globalization.

But even in Europe there is human trafficking across national borders, operated by smugglers for a profit. In the hope of a better life, many victims have even paid dearly for the smuggling service, but are forced into prostitution in the country of arrival. We know another variety from England and France: wealthy families from countries in which slavery is practiced bring "domestic servants" with them to Europe, who are exposed to the whims and blows of their rule here until they are recorded and released. The fate of all these people has brought government and non-governmental organizations to the scene, including the Vatican, the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Amnesty International. Two years ago, the US government bundled its activities in the fight against illegal human trafficking in a central coordination point. At the universities, social scientists have taken up the topic and are replacing the more anecdotal reports by journalists with well-founded studies. Urs Peter Ruf from Bielefeld University, for example, documented the development of slave-master relationships in today's Mauritania (interview on pages 30/31). Louise Brown from the University of Birmingham (England) examines the situation of women who are forced into prostitution in Asia. David Kyle from the University of California at Davis is studying the sociology of people smuggling with Rey Koslowski from Rutgers University. I myself am working on a theory of global slavery.

I am often asked whether the practices described should actually be considered slavery and not a form of extreme exploitation. There is a clear answer to this: Slavery has always meant the total deprivation of free will and freedom of choice under threat of violence, whether it came from the slave owner or from the state. And it is precisely these conditions that we encounter today. A worker on the bottom rung of the economic ladder may not have many options, but there is usually one thing left to him: he can run away with impunity.

One of the hallmarks of slavery is its psychological consequences for victims. Even if the victim is not subjected to beating or other physical torture, he experiences such humiliation that many former slaves are no longer viable in the wild. "I have worked in prisons and with victims of domestic violence before, but that was far more harmless," explains Sydney Lytton, an American psychiatrist who looks after freed slaves.

Slavery is a universal but not a uniform phenomenon; in any place and at any time it takes on various forms. The new slavery is different from the old one. So there are no documents about human possession, because after all it is forbidden. For the same reason, there are no laws that prescribe a minimum level of protection for "goods". The biggest difference, however, is shown by a profitability calculation: While a plantation slave in Alabama cost around 30,000 euros "to purchase" according to today's standards in 1850, a comparable worker can now be had for around 100 euros.

How profitable is a slave?

But it is not just investments in forced labor that have fallen drastically: while it took twenty years for a slave to collect his purchase price and maintenance costs in the cotton fields of the southern states in the 19th century, a forced laborer in South Asia now pays for itself after two years. This dramatic drop in prices also changed modern "slavery". With such short cycles, there is no need to worry about the health of the unfree or care for slaves that are getting older. According to the rules of the global market economy, a slave owner keeps his overall costs low and gets rid of the means of production that have become unprofitable - and not always by releasing the victim into freedom.

Various reasons can be given for this development. One of the prerequisites is the dramatic increase in the world's population: it has tripled since the Second World War. This also increased the number of potential slaves. The breeding ground is also the growing poverty in the third world, which is advancing according to a recent study by the UN Organization for Industrial Development. Family ties and traditional social networks were lost wherever the developing countries were attempted to transform their economies from an agricultural to an industrialized country. This also favors human trafficking, for example parents in the mountains of Thailand often sell their daughters to the brothels in the richer lowlands not because of existential need, but to be able to afford a television, for example. A key factor for the continued existence of slavery is also the de facto lawlessness in many regions of the world. Wherever politicians and police look the other way when those who are entrusted to them are pressed into slavery, a legal ban is of little use. And it is not uncommon for corrupt officials to actively support this illegal business, drive back escaping slaves and punish them.

Another common feature of all forms of slavery is the psychological manipulation of the victims. The Indian Baldev is just one of many who has come to terms with his lot. As far as I know, many victims are well aware that they are wrongly kept as slaves. But coercion, violence and psychological pressure have made them accept this existence. Perhaps this is a survival strategy, because after this submission, permanent physical coercion becomes unnecessary. The enslaved person assumes a new identity and sees his situation as part of a normal, if unfortunate, fate.

In the northeast of Thailand I met the girl Siri. One day a strange woman knocked on the door of her parents' house and promised to find a job for the then 14-year-old. As an advance on the daughter's future income, she gave the parents 50,000 baht in cash (around 2,000 euros at the time). Siri was then sold to a seedy brothel for double that amount. She once tried to flee when the traffickers increased her debt. In addition to the "repayment", the girl had to pay a monthly rent of 30,000 baht. It earned just 100 baht per customer.

Upon arriving at the brothel, Siri had no idea about prostitution. The first time was rape. In their new world of the mighty and the powerless, reward and punishment came from the same source, the pimp. Developing a relationship with the pimp often proves to be a good survival strategy for young women in Siri's position. These men are felons, but they're not all about brute force. They are also masters at fueling insecurity and dependency.

Identity of Suffering

In doing so, they benefit from traditional Thai gender roles - women should be obedient and yielding. Even religion is tried to make the slaves compliant. Thai-style Buddhism sees childbirth as a woman as a punishment for sins in previous lives. The prostitutes are now led to believe that they should atone for crimes by their lot.

In order to endure life in slavery, many young women actually redefine their bondage into a duty or even a form of penance. With no other choice, they accept their role and that of the pimp. Some are even allowed to visit their families on public holidays. For the Luden this is a very welcome public relation: the girls in the country have no idea of ​​prostitution and only see the "Western" clothes of their relatives - their willingness to voluntarily accept such work is growing. Siri himself had assumed such a protective identity at the time of my visit: "I am a whore."

A similar psychology also works with house slaves who work in Europe and North America for diplomats or managers from African and Asian countries. For several years, Cristina Talens from the Committee against Modern Slavery was committed to the liberation and rehabilitation of slaves who had traveled to Paris in the luggage of their rule. Freeing the body is easier than freeing the mind, according to her experience: "Despite daily beatings, despite poor living and working conditions, enslaved people develop a peculiar mental integrity. Some even value aspects of their life, for example the security or the clarity of their world order. If the order is disturbed, everything suddenly gets mixed up. Some freed women even wanted to kill themselves. We had taken the mainstay of their identity from them. Suddenly it was said: Your life has been botched. Start all over again. As if they had lived in vain. "

Freedom of the body alone is therefore not yet real freedom. When slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, the US government did not provide for any rehabilitation. Four million people were released into a shabby economy, without resources and not even given the most necessary protective rights. It is fair to say that America is still suffering from the consequences of the liberation of slaves in the absence of appropriate rehabilitation measures.

The human rights activist Vivek Pandit from the Indian organization Vidhayak Sansad never tires of emphasizing: The actual liberation takes place in the head, liberation of the body alone leads to a dead end - as we have seen with Baldev. Conversely, freedom of thought can stand at the beginning of a path that leads to the liberation of the body - as was the case with Meera.

Pandit's organization has designed an educational program to prepare former slaves for a life in freedom. It includes teaching basic knowledge to arouse curiosity and interest in details; Role-playing games to develop problem-solving strategies and games to promote strategic thinking and teamwork. This training is preceded by a public debate in which the worker reports in detail about his slavery and declares it null and void in front of the assembled public. The declaration of freedom is recorded and read out loud in the village.

Second class citizen

Such models are currently being tested for their practical suitability in field trials. Experience from these programs shows that a combination of economic support, advice and education can result in stable independence. But this work is still in its infancy. There is still no systematic evaluation of these programs. And no social scientist has yet explored the relationship between slaves and masters in depth.

The psychology of the slave finds its counterpart in that of the slave owner. Both are often linked by mutual dependency. Almost all of the slave owners I have met and interviewed in Pakistan, India, Brazil, and Mauritania were family men who viewed themselves as business people. These pillars of local society were all financially well-off, socially integrated and also had the best connections to justice and politics. Keeping slaves is not considered anti-social in those regions. If foreigners denounced this, they did not understand the country and the people.

How can such respected people do such bad things? A government official from Baldev's district, who owns slaves, spoke frankly: "Of course I have slaves. I am a land lord, I care for them and their families, and they work for me. If they don't work out in the fields, then they do housework for me like washing clothes, cooking, cleaning, repairs, whatever happens. It is quite normal that people from the Kol caste work for Vaishyas like me (Kol is the tribal name of a people who are oppressed there, called Vaishyas the caste of landowners and traders. The editors).I give them food and a small piece of land to cultivate. They also borrowed money from me; So I have to see to it that they stay on my land until the debt is paid. You see, I am like a father to these workers. It's a father-son relationship; I protect them and guide them. Of course, sometimes I have to discipline them, like a father would. "

Other slave owners told me similar stories: their slaves were like children to them, they needed control and care. The argument of tradition is also cited: Slavery has existed since time immemorial, so it must correspond to the natural order of things. Still others see simply a question of priorities: having to keep slaves is certainly "an unfortunate thing," they admit, but the well-being of their own families depends on it. Many slave owners get rid of any moral scruples by inserting several levels of management between themselves and the slaves. Without direct contact and detailed knowledge of the processes, they get rid of responsibility according to the principle "What I don't know ..."

In order to combat slavery effectively, concepts must therefore also be developed that offer the slave owner alternatives. Only then will the criminal gangs who deceive or kidnap people be deprived of their market. The global economic interdependencies do not exactly facilitate such approaches. There are too many unanswered questions: What are the links between the human, arms and drug trafficking? What influence does the globalization of the world economy have on the flows of people who are displaced across continents? Anyone involved in these deals has little interest in disclosing data. After all, some DVD players could stay on the shelves if it were known that their low price was due in some way to slavery.

If there is any good news, it is this: A growing public is aware of the problem and is demanding a remedy. Relief funds support the fight against the misery of child slaves, anti-slavery organizations and representatives of the industry try to cooperate. Slavery is rampant and, like any epidemic, it must be countered vehemently.


the overview, issue 1/2002. Dammtorstr. 21a (Hof), P.O. Box 305590, 20317 Hamburg.

The new slavery. By Kevin Bales. Antje Kunstmann Verlag, Munich 2001.

Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives. By David Kyle and Rey Koslowski (eds.). Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Ending slavery. Hierarchy, Dependency and Gender in Central Mauretania. By U. P. Ruf. Transcript Verlag, 1999.

From: Spektrum der Wissenschaft 10/2002, page 24
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is included in Spectrum of Science 10/2002