Expendable People: Slavery in the Age of Globalization(1).


"Once officially abolished, slavery was transformed: adopted as an illicit enterprise, it has mirrored changes in the general economy. No longer viewed as property, people today are seen merely as disposable inputs into production."

Slavery continues around the world, but not in the way that most of us think of it. Since its wide abolition in the late 19th century, slavery has slipped easily into the shadow economy. Having done so, it began to change and develop in ways much more fluid and less visible than when it was legally regulated. In this article, I will illuminate the current state of slavery in the world. I will also demonstrate how new forms of slavery have evolved rapidly into a globalized economic pursuit since the Second World War. I will then examine two case studies of slavery as it is practiced in Mauritania and Sudan, addressing the difficult question of slave `redemption' in Sudan and shedding light on this problem by contextualising it historically and socially Finally, I will look at some possible approaches to confronting slavery in this century.

The history of slavery spans most of human history and has taken many forms. While slavery continues today in a much-changed way, our understanding of it tends to be stuck in the 19th century The common perception of slavery as the ownership of people has led to confusion about what constitutes slavery today. To add to this confusion, none of the 300 laws and international agreements written since 181S to combat this phenomenon have defined it in exactly the same way. This has resulted in a hodgepodge of terms and definitions covering chattel slavery, debt bondage and forced prostitution, as well as such divergent conditions as incest, organ harvesting and prison labor.

I define slavery as the complete control of a person for economic exploitation by violence or the threat of violence. The remarkable variety of human exploitation discussed below suggests, however, that there are gray areas even in this strict definition. My aim is to discuss only the social and economic relationships that constitute enslavement, even if this means excluding a discussion of prison labor, child labor or terribly exploited workers who are still free to leave their employers.

Using this definition of slavery as a guideline, my best estimate of the number of slaves in the world today is 27 million. Where are all these slaves? An estimated 15 to 20 million are bonded laborers in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The remainder is concentrated in Southeast Asia, Northern and Western Africa, and parts of South America, though slavery can be found in almost every country in the world including the United States, Japan, and many European countries. Today's total slave population is greater than the population of Canada and nearly five times greater than the population of Israel.

Most slaves tend to be used in simple, non-technological and traditional work. The largest proportion works in agriculture. Slaves are also used in many other kinds of work: brick making, mining and quarrying, textiles, leather working, prostitution, gem and jewelry making, cloth and carpet making, domestic servitude, forest-clearing, charcoal making and working in shops. While much of their work is aimed at local sale and consumption, slave-made goods filter throughout the global economy. For example, carpets, fireworks, jewelry, metal goods, steel (made with slave-produced charcoal), and foods such as grains, rice and sugar are exported directly to North America and Europe after being produced using slave labor. In countries where slavery and industry co-exist, cheap slave-made goods and food keep factory wages low and help make everything from toys to computers less expensive. In addition, transnational companies, acting through subsidiaries in the developing world, take advantage (often unwittingly) of slave labor to increase dividends to their shareholders.

Slavery, like many illegal activities, adapts rapidly to changing legal, economic and social conditions. It flourishes in situations of social crisis and when government and law enforcement become corrupt. Thus, once officially abolished, slavery was transformed: adopted as an illicit enterprise, it has mirrored changes in the general economy No longer viewed as property, people today are seen merely as disposable inputs into production. Meanwhile, the cultural mechanisms that make slavery possible have also evolved over time in adaptation to social change. Thus, the slavery of modern Pakistan and India reflects the historical feudalism of these countries, and is also reflected in new forms of bondage that have grown from, but are not themselves, feudalism. Furthermore, slavery has become ensnared in the process of globalization, being driven deeper into the illicit economy. In sum, the transformation of slavery is an example of the globalization process, taking place in the shadows, and is little observed and less understood.


Despite the multifaceted and infrequently observed nature of modern slavery, most people accept that there are several forms of slavery common enough to be summarized. The three types given here are not exhaustive, but represent the prevalent forms of slavery today:

  1. Chattel Slavery is the form closest to old slavery. A person is captured, born, or sold into permanent servitude, and ownership is often asserted. The slave's children are normally treated as property as well and can be ,sold by the slaveholder. Occasionally, these slaves are kept as items of conspicuous consumption. This form is most often found in Northern and Western Africa and some Arab countries, but represents a small proportion of slaves in the modern world.

  2. Debt Bondage is the most common form of slavery in the world. A person pledges him or herself against a loan of money, but the length and nature of the service is undefined, and the labor does not diminish the original debt.(2) The debt can be passed down to subsequent generations, thus enslaving offspring, while `defaulting' can be punished by seizing or selling children into further debt bonds. Ownership is not normally asserted, but there is complete physical control of the laborer. Debt bondage is most common in South Asia.

  3. Contract Slavery illustrates how new forms of slavery are hidden within the framework of modern labor relations. Contracts are offered which guarantee employment, perhaps in a workshop or factory, but when the workers are taken to their place of employment they discover that they have instead been taken into slavery The contract is used as an enticement to trick the person. It is also a way of making the slavery appear legitimate if necessary; and, if legal questions arise, the contract is produced. While ownership is not asserted, the slave is under threat of violence, has no freedom of movement and is paid nothing. This is the most rapidly growing form of slavery, and perhaps the second largest form today. Contract slavery is most often found in Southeast Asia, Brazil, some Arab states and some parts of South Asia.

In addition to these three main types, there are other kinds of slavery which account for a small part of the total number of slaves. Most of these types tend to be restricted to specific geographical regions or political situations. For example, "war slavery," which is practiced in Burma among other places, is linked to politics and often includes government-sponsored slavery. Under this practice, the government and army engage in the widespread capture and subsequent enslavement of civilians. Tens of thousands of men, women and children are used as laborers or bearers in military campaigns against indigenous peoples or in government construction projects. The Burmese military dictatorship does not suggest that it owns the people it has enslaved; in fact, it denies it enslaves anyone. But the International Labour Organization, US Department of State, and human rights organizations confirm that violence is used to hold a large number of people in bondage. The question of war slavery again arises when we consider the situation in Sudan. There is also slavery linked to religious duty in India and Ghana and a very large but hidden number of children ,enslaved as domestic workers around the world.


Due to the rapid increase in world population, there is, for the first time in human history, an absolute glut of potential slaves, resulting in a dramatic example of supply and demand of slaves. There are so many potential slaves that their value has fallen. The oversupply and attendant devaluation of slaves has completely changed the way slaves are used. Since slaves are no longer major investments, the relationship between slaves and slaveholders has been fundamentally altered, changing the amount of profit that can be made from a slave as well as shortening the time a person might be enslaved. These changes also have minimized the importance of ownership. When slaves were expensive, it was necessary to safeguard them as an investment by having clear and legally-documented ownership. They were also worth stealing and chasing down if they escaped. Today, slaves are so inexpensive that it is not worth securing permanent ownership. The fact that ownership of slaves is now illegal is not necessarily problematic for slaveholders; for them, slaves are disposable.

Disposability means that the new forms of slavery are less permanent. Across the world, the length of time a slave spends in bondage varies enormously It is simply not profitable to keep slaves when they are not immediately useful. Although most are enslaved for periods of years, some are held for only a few months. In countries where sugar cane is grown, for example, people are often enslaved for a single harvest. Since they are used only for a short time, there is little reason to invest heavily in their upkeep or to insure that they survive...

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