Slavery by Any Other Name Is Still a Global Scourge

Define it as bonded labor, or coerced servitude, the fact that so many humans are worked like livestock is a stain on the world’s conscience.

forced labor on sugar cane plantation

In homes and in fields, women’s never-ending work is far too often tied to coercion and bonded labor. (Photo: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images)

is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

For 20 years after she married her husband, Leelu Bai—a woman from India’s Thane District—went to work in the house of her husband’s landlord every day at 6:00 a.m. After cleaning and fetching water, Leelu would go to work on the farm, cutting and threshing until 7:00 p.m. or later. When the sun went down, she would sometimes be called back to the landlord’s home to clean and wash again. Only after the landlord’s home was in acceptable condition was Leelu allowed to return to her own home to feed and care for her family.

As described by Anti-Slavery International, the family of Leelu’s husband had been bonded to the same landlord for three generations. They were indebted to the landlord for loans taken out to pay for marriages, illnesses, education and necessities of survival. The family’s landlord forbade them from working for any other landlords, and beatings were an ever-present threat.

Bonded labor, according to Anti-Slavery International, is the modern world’s most widely used method of enslaving people. A $30 debt can result in four years of bonded labor.

MORE: How Many Slaves Do You Own?

Africa, in the modern age, is not the world’s primary source of slaves. The continent once served as a hunting ground for European and Middle Eastern slave traders, who deemed their human captives cargo and shipped them abroad from coastal prisons. But while Africa remains a major source of forced labor, Asia is now home to the world’s largest slave population.

That’s according to the latest estimate by the International Labour Organization. The Switzerland-based U.N. organization puts the world’s slave population, which it defines as people “trapped in jobs which they were coerced or deceived into and which they cannot leave,” at about 21 million. 

“We know the hot spots, but it is important to remember that it does affect literally every country and any region of the world.”

Some 11.7 million of those in forced labor are in the Asia-Pacific region (which includes India, Pakistan and China), followed by Africa at 3.7 million (18 per cent) and Latin America with 1.8 million victims (9 per cent).

“We know that Asia is most affected in actual numbers,” Beate Andrees, a senior policy officer with the ILO’s program to combat forced labor, told TakePart in a recent interview. 

Andrees is quick to add that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“When you look at the number of victims per inhabitants, the countries of southeastern Europe and the former Soviet Union countries have actually taken the lead here,” she said. “It depends on how you look at the problem.”

According to the ILO’s recent report, the number of victims of forced labor per thousand inhabitants in the central and south-eastern Europe and Africa regions is at 4.2 and 4.0 per 1,000 inhabitants respectively. By comparison, in the developed economies of Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand and the European Union, the forced labor index is at 1.5 per 1,000 inhabitants.

Regardless of a nation’s level of development, “we know that literally all countries are affected, in one way or the other,” said Andrees.

In Sudan, slavery has been used as a weapon of war. Some parts of Latin America still employ traditional forms of bonded labor. Florida has a long string of documented cases of forced labor. And in India, garment manufacturers in the state of Tamil Nadu recruited young girls who were worked in slavery-like conditions in a widely reported case called the Sumangali Scheme.

According to a June report by Anti-Slavery International, a non-governmental agency that combats forced labor, the victims of the Sumangali Scheme, who were under threat of violence if they tried to leave, were paid a low daily wage “but are promised a lump sum after completing the contract, which many hope can be used as a dowry.” But that final payment was often withheld as many of the girls, according to the report, were forced to leave the job “before the completion of their three-year contract, often due to ill health.”

The prevalence of slavery in countries such as India stems from “a complete lack of the rule of law in certain sectors of the economy among certain communities,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, told TakePart in a recent interview.

While it’s easy to focus in on the world’s worst offenders, especially upon those offenders that are oceans away, the ILO’s Andrees warns that forced labor remains a global problem. 

“We know the hot spots, but it is important to remember that it does affect literally every country and any region of the world,” she said.

How far removed are you from someone working in forced labor? Make the calculation, and leave your findings in COMMENTS.

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