As some of you know, a couple of months ago I had the privilege of spending some time at International Justice Mission. The main reason I went was to learn about slavery in the modern world. Although I have heard for years that it’s a problem, I had a hard time believing that it really existed before I got to interview the people that deal with it daily — after all, we live in a modern world, right? I also had no idea what modern slavery looked like, until I got to talk to the guy who’s in charge of IJM’s efforts in South Asia. Specifically, I wanted to know how modern slavery was different from slavery several hundred years ago.
If you want to have a better understanding of modern slavery, READ THIS POST!
Here’s what he had to say:
When we talk about slavery several hundred years ago – meaning the African slave trade or the trans-Atlantic slave trade – it was a legal process. The governments and businessmen were publically buying and selling people. It was a visible way of functioning, it was normalized and they didn’t see anything wrong with that. The challenge back then for abolitionists was enacting laws to make it illegal, and then doing whatever it took after the laws were in place to eradicate the practice of slavery.
Today, slavery is illegal all around the world. There are laws in place that say you cannot enslave another human being. But it’s still happening. The slave owners just disguise it in new ways.
In South Asia, where I lead teams that free slaves, slavery never really went away. It just morphed into a different form – debt bondage.
When slavery was declared illegal, but people wanted to still use slaves, slave owners no longer had the freedom to do it publically, and needed to find a way to make the process look legitimate. People with wealth and businesses who wanted to continue in the practice of slave labor designed a way to keep or attract new laborers. They would offer someone a little bit of money up front in exchange for a promise to work for them, which they call an advance. A business owner explains it to the potential slave like this: “You come work for me at my place. I will pay you for the work, you use that money to live and pay off the debt, and when you’re done you can leave.”
Although it sounds like a legitimate business transaction, it’s really a scheme. In most cases the “hired worker” has to not only work there but also live there. The business owner has them in a factory, rice field, brick factory or other jobs that require manual labor at odd hours. For example: rice has to be dried during the day and boiled at night, so you have people that are working all night, have a little break in the morning, and then start working again in the afternoon.
These businesses needed a lot of manual labor, they didn’t want to pay for it, and so they created the advance system, which brought in A LOT of people, most of whom were uneducated. The fact that the laborers are uneducated is very strategic on the part of the business owners. Because they’ve never had an opportunity to go to school, these laborers often aren’t just illiterate, but innumerate. That means that they lack the most basic understanding of arithmetic. I’ve asked a man who is clearly 40 or more how old he is, and he will say 4 or 12. He has no concept of numbers. So when you talk about a business owner giving them advance money and telling them, “you received this much, this much you owe this is how much I’m giving you, and I’m subtracting this much from your advance.” It’s very easy to confuse them.
Education is only part of the problem. Because of the caste system these laborers don’t feel like they CAN challenge them. So you have a dynamic where the person thinks they can pay off the debt and leave, initially it looks fine, and then slowly – like a frog in a pot of water – the rules change, but it’s never traumatic right away, only over time.
It’s only sometime later when the laborer needs to go back to their village to deal with an issue or sick loved one that the owner says “no you’re not allowed to leave.” All of a sudden the laborer needs permission to do anything and everything, and the owner is actually controlling the things in the laborer’s life that they never handed over to them in the first place. Basic freedoms are taken away so that now you can’t go to the market without getting permission. If you want to go to the market, you can only go on this day. And if you want to buy something, you have to be supervised by someone else. Or you can leave a child back with the owner. Or you can only go to this one particular stall to buy provisions, which just so happens to also be owned by the business owner. So they find themselves gradually trapped inside a system or a world that is not really built by walls or chains but just by these rules and confinement that they have to operate under.
Soon they find out that they can’t go work for someone else. It shouldn’t matter who they work for, they are paying off debt. Strategically, the owner pays them just enough so that they can live – literally just pennies so they can get enough food to keep working, usually – but not quite enough to cover all of their basic needs. When they get sick the owner says, “Here, I will give you this medicine and I will just put it on your tab.” Everything extra that they need is put on their tab. Soon they actually owe more than when they started, and what they are getting paid is not enough to eat and survive. At some point, the laborers think about running away or leaving and they go back to their villages but at some point they get tracked back. Or they have families and can’t run in the first place.
While all of these freedoms are being restricted, the vast majority of modern slaves also become the victims of verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
In answer to your question, yes, when we talk about slavery it doesn’t look like it did hundreds of years ago, it’s much more sophisticated and complex. But whenever a person’s basic freedoms are taken away, that’s slavery. Instead of a public trading block we have these laborers with no power, no voice, no one to advocate for them, no understanding of the law, trapped there, and they have to live there, and their families are there, and there debts are constantly increasing – that’s modern slavery.
As I sat there and listened to his explanation, I couldn’t help but try to put myself in one of the laborer’s shoes. It’s hard to do that as an American especially considering one of our most sacred national documents is the bill of rights. In the cultural West, education and numbers are a priority starting at 4 years old, and our job struggles are all about more money and satisfaction rather than being oppressed by a guy that will “stab you with a sewing needle” or “rape your wife if you don’t fill rice bags quickly enough”. Our struggles are so different from their struggles.