Modern Day Slave-Holders

Monday, December 5, 2016TOPICS: ResearchFaculty and Staff

Modern Day Slave-Holders - 2016 Kroc School Magazine
begin quoteBeing “free” isn’t enough if that freedom simply pushes people out of brothels and back to the margins.

Slavery is in the news lately. It wasn’t always. Over the last 15 years a dedicated cadre of activists have put the issue on the front page of newspapers and at the top of foreign policy agendas. This wasn’t easy. After all, most Americans believe slavery ended “ages ago,” with the end of the Civil War. The dates are similar globally: slavery pretty much ended about 150 years ago.

Except it didn’t. Millions of people still live in bondage — held against their will through violence and threats of violence, with little or no pay. While half of those living in contemporary slavery are in South Asia, no one country is blameless. Contemporary slavery is a truly global phenomenon.

One of the reasons slavery persists is a toxic combination of personal avarice and governmental ambivalence to the needs of the most vulnerable. There is plenty of money to be made in less-regulated pockets of the economy. A host of middlemen and middle-women profit, but so do corporations of all sizes. Workers are forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan, make coal in Brazil, break rock in India. The thread of exploitation, profit and accountability stretch from the men with the guns all the way up to the men with the bank accounts.  

I started out as a human rights activist in urban Mumbai 15 years ago. My first assignment was to go undercover in the red light district. The goal was to enter brothels and identify minors who had been trafficked into sexual exploitation. Identify them and rescue them. The idea was that simple: Seek and save the lost. My colleagues and I had detailed plans for what we would do with the perpetrators: court cases and maximum sentences. We spent far less time figuring out what to do with survivors, hoping government shelters were sufficient.  

In the decade that followed I continued to work in the anti-slavery movement, but two questions nagged at me. First, what does freedom look like for survivors? Advocacy groups promote unsustainable livelihood projects best fit for illiterate and isolated survivors: making bags for sympathetic Western consumers, for example. These projects give people jobs, but prompt new questions about what freedom looks like. 

I attacked this puzzle in a broader project exploring a human rights approach to slavery and trafficking — or to anti-slavery and anti-trafficking projects. It is not enough to provide aftercare facilities (though those are vital) or to provide alternate livelihood projects (though those are important). Sustainable emancipation — the kind that really sticks the next time recruiters appear — requires real economic, political and cultural rights and recognition. 

Being “free” isn’t enough if that freedom simply pushes people out of brothels and back to the margins. Sustainable freedom comes from broader changes: new ideas and worldviews, community mobilization and solidarity, economic development and livelihoods, infrastructure growth and the like. Not easy, but freedom never is. 

The second question that nagged at me in those years related to perpetrators. Who were these guys? Over the past few years I’ve set out to better understand this population. 

Globally, the majority of enslaved individuals live in places where old forms of exploitation have never quite disappeared. India is one such place, where important cultural and religious norms about hierarchy and duty have resulted in a persistently high number of people living in dire poverty and extreme exploitation. Interviews with perpetrators in rural India suggest that they often thought they were doing their victims a favor. By acting as an employer or lender of last resort they feel they are stepping in where society, family and government had failed. They told me — in interview after interview — that it was their duty, and that they looked after the most marginalized as if they were family. 

Perhaps some of them were lying, but the simple fact remains: Nobody had ever gone and talked to these folks. They saw themselves as businessmen, farmers, contractors and go-betweens. Sometimes they were well-respected in their community, or even community leaders. They certainly didn’t see themselves as criminals, traffickers or slaveholders — terms I used freely 15 years ago. 

I hope both of these questions lead to larger conversations about what we owe victims and how we understand perpetrators. Victims deserve a more robust kind of freedom, and perpetrators deserve justice. Figuring out what these things — freedom, justice — look like is tough work, but exactly the kind of work required if we want to understand both peace and justice.

is a political sociologist and assistant professor at the Kroc School of Peace Studies. His new book, What Slaveholders Think, will be published by Columbia University Press in early 2017. His latest project explores how social movements use new technology, especially drones.

Read this article and discover other articles of Kroc Peace Magazine 2016 on ISSUU.

Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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