|Considering Slavery Past and Present
The men, women and children sold into the Transatlantic Slave Trade were seen as chattels to be bought and sold. Their only worth was considered in monetary terms. As a consequence enslaved Africans were routinely tortured (e.g. whipped, branded, beaten, chained, etc.); separated from other family members; and even deprived of their own names. Hardy any of the millions who were transported across the Atlantic ever returned to Africa.
During the voyage, the cramped and filthy environment, combined with brutal treatment and inadequate food, meant that between 10 and 20 per cent of slaves died in transit. During the peak of the slave trade in the later 18th century, some 80,000 Africans were transported by Europeans to the “New World” every year and by this time Britain controlled some 40 per cent of European slave trading on the African coast.
By 1760, slavery had become a cornerstone of the political economy of Britain and was considered both socially and culturally acceptable. It was so much accepted as part of the status quo that even those who had reservations about the trade felt there was nothing they could do about it. For example, in 1760 the Archbishiop of Canterbury, concerned by the high death rates of Africans on plantations owned by the Church of England, noted:
“the Negroes in our plantations decrease and new Supplies become necessary continually. Surely this proceeds from some Defect, both of Humanity, & even of good policy. But we must take things as they are at present.”
One of the key points in reversing attitudes towards slavery came in May 1787 when 12 men met to form a committee with the purpose of ending the slave trade. From this first meeting to the actual abolition of the slave trade throughout the British colonies took just over 20 years.
In this relatively short period of time, the campaign developed into a mass movement that not only managed to challenge assumptions about slavery that had been embedded over hundreds of years, but also convinced many people that they had a responsibility to end it. Its achievements wee unparalleled at the time and even today there are only a limited number of human rights campaigns which could claim to have had the same impact.
There are many factors which contributed to the success of this movement. One of these was the decision to focus on the abolition of the trade rather than slavery itself. The conservative nature of the objective facilitated the establishment of a mass movement supported by different sections of society, which was reflected in the hundreds of thousands of people who signed petitions across Britain. In 1792, nearly a third of Manchester’s total population petitioned for the abolition of the trade.
Another key factor in the success of the movement was the role of Africans who were or had been enslaved. Olaudah Equiano was a former slave and a leading abolitionist in Britain. His autobiography was a bestseller, with eight editions and three translations
printed in his lifetime.
The successful slave rebellion which led to the eventual establishment of the Republic of Haiti in 1804 was also pivotal to the abolition of the slave trade. It proved that neither the French nor the British armies could maintain the institution of slavery, despite pouring in huge human and financial resources in an attempt to defeat the army of former slaves. Around 50,000 French soldiers died trying to impose the institution of slavery on Haiti —
more than at the Battle of Waterloo.
There can be no doubt that, through rebellions, personal acts of resistance and as anti-slavery campaigners in their wn right, Africans were absolutely pivotal to the development of the abolitionist movement as well as ringing an end to the Transatlantic Slave Trade itself on 25 March 1807.
1807: the end of slavery?
The end of the slave trade did not constitute the end of lavery. It was not until 1834 that slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies and it took decades before other countries did the same. Laws to abolish slavery in the French colonies were passed in 1848, followed by the United States of America in 1865, Cuba in 1886 and Brazil in 1888.
Yet even as the slow process of freeing slaves took place around the world many former slave owners and colonial governments were looking for new ways to ensure a ready supply of labour that they could exploit for little or no pay. Consequently, forced labour was widely used by the colonial powers, including Belgium, Britain, France, and Portugal.
One of the worst examples was the use of forced labour by King Leopold II in the Congo. Leopold set up a system where the Congolese were systematically enslaved and forced to work collecting ivory and rubber. Those who refused to co-operate were flogged,
whipped, had their limbs severed or were killed. Roughly 10 million Congolese people died as a consequence of Leopold’s rule of the Congo Free State (1885-1908).
When the League of Nations and the International Labour Organization (ILO) were created in 1919 chattel-slavery still had not been universally abolished and other
slavery like practices, like those used, the Congo, were causing increasing public concern. These international institutions, and later the United Nations, defined what
constituted slavery in the 20th century in a series of international standards, which included the two slavery Conventions of 1926 and 1956 and the ILO Convention
on Forced Labour, 1930.
Collectively these standards provide us with internationally agreed definitions of practices which are considered modern forms of slavery. Their development also reflected a consensus across the international community that states should commit themselves to eradicating these different manifestations of slavery.
Despite this, many governments have failed to take practical steps to implement these standards and millions of people around the world today continue to be subjected to contemporary forms of slavery.
Slavery in the 21st century
In 2005, the ILO produced a minimum estimate of the number of forced labourers in the world today and found that at least 12.3 million individuals are forced to work against their will under the threat of some form of punishment.
Those subjected to forced labour can be found in Furope and North America as well as in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The main contemporary forms of slavery in the world today fall into the following categories and they all include a forced labour component.
Debt bondage and serfdom
Debt bondage occurs when an individual offers their labour in exchange for a loan, but then lose all control over their conditions of work and the amount they are paid. Their debt is often inflated through excessive interest rate charges and can be passed on to other
family members. This practice affects millions of people in India, Pakistan and Nepal.
Serfdom is also a problem in this region. For example, research carried out in Pakistan by a local non-governmental organisation estimated that millions of people were forced to provide free labour for their landlord on their farm or house — a practice known as
However, these problems are not confined to Asia. In Latin America, debt bondage has been documented in countries like Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Peru. Debt bondage is also a mechanism by which traffickers seek to control migrant workers and force them to work in conditions they did not agree to.
The unconditional worst forms of child labour
The “unconditional” worst forms of child labour are defined in ILO Convention No. 182 as slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour; forced recruitment for use in armed conflict; prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities.
These practices affect millions of children all over the world. For example, the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts alone takes place in Burma
(Myanmar), Burundi, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.
The ILO forced labour report estimates that between 40-50 per cent of the total number of forced labourers are children. However, the report stresses that it is a minimum estimate and a previous ILO publication, which focused exclusively on child labour, found that there were 8.4 million children in the unconditional worst forms of child labour.
Trafficking in people
The ILO estimates that some 2.5 million people have been trafficked into forced labour and draws attention to the fact that 32 per cent of those trafficked are used exclusively for labour exploitation (e.g. domestic work, agricultural work, catering, packing and processing, etc.).
Governments, particularly those in developed countries, have failed to properly protect migrant workers from forced labour. They have restricted access to legal migration channels despite a high demand for skilled and unskilled migrant workers, which has made smuggling and trafficking more profitable, and they have not taken adequate measures to protect and support trafficked people.
For example, the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking provides minimum standards for the protection and support of trafficked people, but only 24 of the 46 Member States of the Council of Europe had signed up to the Convention by March 2006.
Forced labour imposed by the State
While it is individuals and not States who are responsible for almost 80 per cent of forced labour cases around the world today, some governments are still directly responsible for the exaction of forced labour. The most well known international case is that of Burma
where the military compels sections of the civilian population to undertake a variety of work including construction projects and road repairs.
The Government of North Korea routinely exacts forced labour from those held in detention centres and labour camps and the Chinese Government imposes Re-education through Labour (RETL) on those detained for drug addiction, theft and prostitution. The RETL is an administrative system that lacks judicial process and can lead to up to three years detention. Some 260,000 people were detained in China under this system at the
beginning of 2004.
In some countries people are compelled to perform work for others simply because of their caste or ethnic group. For example, in Niger, research carried out by the NGO Timidria found that the majority of the 11,000 people interviewed could identify individuals by name as their masters and were expected to work for them
without pay. Over 80 per cent of respondents said their master took key decisions in their lives, such as who they would marry and whether their children went to school.
The allocation of labour on the basis of caste is a significant problem in South Asia. Dalits are assigned tasks and occupations which are deemed ritually polluting by other caste communities (e.g. the removal of human and animal waste, sweeping, disposal of dead animals, leatherwork, etc.). Refusal to perform such tasks leads to physical abuse and social boycott.
Clearly the struggle to abolish all forms of slavery has still not been won, but one of the lessons of the campaign against the Transatlantic Slave Trade and subsequent campaigns is that individuals can and do change the world in which they live, both through their
individual actions and as part of movements.
Anti-Slavery International has a range of material on its website which may he useful:
For educational materials, go to www.antislavery.org/2007 and click on education.
For information on our current campaigns, go to: www.antislavery.org/2007
For publications, including some of those referred to below go to:
Equiano, O., (1995 The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (New York, Penguin Books).
Hochschild, A., (2005) Bury the Chains (Boston, Houghton Mifflin).
International Labour Office, (2005) A global alliance against forced labour (Geneva, ILO).
Kaye,, M., (2005) 1807-2007: Over 200 Years of Campaigning Against Slavery (London, Anti-Slavery International).
Weissbrodt, D. and Anti-Slavery International (2002) Abolishing Slavery and its Contemporary Forms (Geneva Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights).