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The Big Question: Can we ever beat slavery?

Updated Wednesday, 1st December 2004

Undocumented workers and people trafficking are common in the 21st Century - will we ever defeat slavery?

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Despite numerous laws and international conventions to outlaw it, slavery appears to be thriving. Millions of people around the world are held as slave workers, under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' modern definitions of slavery. That's more, in fact, than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth century. Today's Big Question is "Can we ever get rid of slavery?"

What do we mean by slavery?
Slavery means that "a person is held against their will under a threat of violence," says Professor Kevin Bales of the University of Mississippi. "Secondly they are being economically exploited and paid nothing; and thirdly they cannot walk away." That applies equally to slaves in ancient Egypt, in Mississippi in 1850 or in London today.

How widespread is slavery?
The United Nations says 27 million people are held in conditions of slavery: from domestic servitude to human trafficking, from child labour to debt bondage - the most common form of modern-day slavery.

"I've met many families in India in their 4th generation of enslavement, against an original debt of say £20… They are absolutely trapped," says Kevin Bales - author of Disposable People: A new slavery in the global economy.

Why is slavery so pervasive?
Kevin Bales points to the population growth in the developing world over the past 50 years coupled with the economic strains of globalisation and modernisation. He says about a billion people have been impoverished as a result. "They have no economic, social or political power. If you then add governmental corruption, people can use violence to turn those vulnerable people into slave workers." What is more, he says, because of this glut of potential slaves on the world market, the price they can fetch has fallen to an all-time low - and that has implications for the way they are treated, used and disposed of.

Today, though, slavery is illegal -- unlike in previous centuries when it was an integral part of the world's economic system. From the 15th to the late 18th century, for example, up to 13 million people were captured and shipped from West Africa to the New World of the Americas as part of the wider trading system. Conditions on board were appalling and many didn't survive the passage. Nineteenth century anti-slavery campaigns were some of the earliest pressure groups and were behind some of the first human rights laws.

What is being done about it today?
Article 4 of the 'Declaration of Human Rights', adopted in 1948, states that "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms."

In 1956, the 'United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery' banned debt bondage, serfdom, servile marriage and child servitude.

But the illegal trade in humans is the third fastest growing crime after drug and arms.

"The trafficking in human beings is even more lucrative than the drugs trade, because with human beings you can sell them several times over," says Helga Konrad, the Special Representative on combating trafficking in Human Beings at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Criminal groups make an estimated $10-12 billion through human trafficking.

"This is slavery", she says, "but unfortunately in many countries it is not recognised as that… It is very often the victims who are criminalised."

Many countries have started to reform their legislation and have made human trafficking a specific crime. But, she says, "It is only paper. What is needed is the implementation" - and that means better legislation, more law enforcement and stiffer sentences - for example, when The Attorney General in the United Kingdom appealed against a ten year prison sentence for a man convicted of human trafficking offences - the Court of Appeal increased the sentence to twenty-three years.

Brazil says it wishes to end slavery completely. When he came to power two years ago President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva pledged to eradicate slavery by 2006. Up to 40,000 people are thought to be held as slaves in Brazil - in charcoal camps, sweat shops and cattle ranches in the Amazon.

"You sometimes found on the ranches [situations] where the cattle are very well treated with the latest technology... but the men working there to clear the forest are treated worse than animals, " says Jan Rocha, author of the ILO's report Study of the magnitude of slavery in Brazil.

In the past year, the Brazilian government has introduced hundreds of measures - stepping up raids, increasing the appearances of public prosecutors in remote areas and imposing heavier fines. But many of the slave owners have been found to be politicians.

"Slavery will only really come to an end in Brazil when it is seen as totally shocking, which it isn't yet. How can you have politicians, senators, congressmen, who are themselves slave owners?"

This edition of The Big Question was first broadcast on 6th November 2004

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