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  • Modern day slavery

    by Rumbold
    25th May, 2009 at 7:49 pm    

    The Guardian has an excellent, and harrowing, article on the abuses which many female immigrant workers from the developing world suffer, with the focus on the huge numbers of migrant workers in the Middle East:

    “Her testimony, along with thousands of others’, has been gathered by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group claims that, every week, one of an estimated 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon dies. Normally it is recorded as “suicide” or falling while trying to escape their employer. Another major cause of death is untreated illness - hospitals cost money and maids aren’t seen as worth the expense. HRW claims that maids in Lebanon, as elsewhere in the Middle East, are increasingly vulnerable to beatings, rape and murder - and there are no laws to protect them from abusive employers.”

    Amrit is suitably outraged about the abuse of women all over the world, and with Sonia’s help illustrates how this is far from a modern phenomenon:

    “These women are viewed not as workers, but as slaves. Slaves, to which the owner’s husband has a right. The truth of what sonia says about needing to confront history is apparent here. The behaviour of the Arab world in the past has not only not been criticised, but is no doubt still lionised by many. Most noxiously, it has been able to continue, unchallenged. Men and women within the Middle East who mistreat these women obviously have no conception of feminism or human rights. Waiting for them to condemn such behaviour is obviously tantamount to waiting for hell to freeze over. Their ancestors did it! Ergo it must be right!”

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    Filed in: Civil liberties,Sex equality

    38 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs
    1. pickles

      New blog post: Modern day slavery

    1. Humpty Dumpty — on 25th May, 2009 at 7:57 pm  

      Hold on a moment, I thought other cultures such as those in the middle east are valid and equal to ours, and that we have no place in condemning such practices as slavery?

    2. sonia — on 25th May, 2009 at 8:13 pm  

      Thanks for posting this Rumbold, and for Amrit for highlighting this on her blog. The report is heart-rending as I have already said. This is indeed slavery in the modern day, and it is apalling. Also, there are many employers here who are abusing their domestic workers (the report doesn’t give us much information on this, i.e. who what where) - and though they have more recourse to justice here, it is a big issue for domestic workers who are here illegally say. Technically, legal domestic workers have recourse to justice. The big issue with Gulf states is that they do not have much of a concept of human rights for their own citizens, never mind much justice for poor workers, who are treated the worst of the worst. Also very important to highlight is that most of the countries who provide labour do so in a highly organised (practically criminal) way (i.e. they rip off the people going to work, and make many false promises) and there is usually no way for the victims to seek justice against that in the country of their origin. Manpower businesses are huge. (and somewhat different to people say here choosing to bring over a maid from their own country etc. which is usually more of an individual thing). There needs to be some transnational co-operation and recognition that SOMETHING needs to be done to help these victims seek justice when things go wrong for them. How can they take their employers to court for example? (when the employer’s country doesn’t recognise a wrong has been committed) and how can they hold the manpower firms to account. Also who checks out these manpower firms globally to ensure they are not actually breaking laws, and engaging in human trafficking, which is what happens so often.

      As for human trafficking rings, they are illegal and should be. Manpower businesses which masquerade to be completely legal in theory in terms of exporting labour to a job overseas- well these need to be held up to some ethical global standards i think.

      Finally, the issue is poverty and the sad fact that these people had such few choices that they had to go and work somewhere where they had no idea what was going to happen to them, if things were going to get worse or not.

      And also - social norms which allow so many people to witness other people treating domestic servants badly and for this to be practically socially acceptable. And no one highlighting anyone else’s behaviour because really - they are all up to the same thing.

      There is nothing wrong with domestic work - if you do such work for someone, you should be paid for it, and that is that. No one owns you. Those days are over, of thinking that ‘owning’ someone is acceptable. NOw, we know that, but we try and treat the poorest people who service our homes - that way anyway.

    3. sonia — on 25th May, 2009 at 8:20 pm  

      There is an Amnesty International exhibition coming up highlighting the lives of eastern european girls who have been trafficked - i will post the link. Back in 2007, (200 years celebrating abolition) there was a photographic exhibition at St. Pauls - Slave Britain I think this follows progress from then.

      Anti-slavery International also is worth looking at - campaigns for the freedom of millions of people worldwide who are trapped in situations of slavery or slavery-like practices.

    4. Amrit — on 25th May, 2009 at 8:27 pm  

      Humpty Dumpty might want to read my actual blog post, where I condemned the kind of lazy moral relativism that promotes that sort of thinking. The post before the one Rumbold linked to, discusses it extensively.

      Oh, and PP has addressed it many a time too. Check the ‘Cultural relativism’ index in the archives.

    5. Nyrone — on 25th May, 2009 at 9:42 pm  

      Superb article, and I look forward to getting more info on that Amnesty International exhibition Sonia…

    6. The Common Humanist — on 25th May, 2009 at 10:09 pm  

      But…but…..but…… said Islam was a flawless bill of rights………….you lied!

      Ok, joking aside, a timely and heart rending report. Well posted and hopefully will make a difference to the real lives of people.

    7. sarah — on 25th May, 2009 at 11:14 pm  

      Have you guys read Enslaved by Rahila Gupta? Well worth a read if you’re interested in modern slavery.

    8. Refresh — on 26th May, 2009 at 12:28 am  

      Here is another article well worth a read:

      ‘ “When I hear of girls working in London who swallow acid, I know it could have been me”

      Every year, millions of women leave their own families in Africa and Asia to look after other people’s in the west. But many domestic workers find themselves abused, beaten, raped, even murdered. Foreign Reporter of the Year Dan McDougall travels from Manila through the Middle East to London to hear their stories’

    9. Nyrone — on 26th May, 2009 at 1:49 am  

      One of the best books I’ve ever read on modern-day slavery is ‘disposable people’ by Kevin Bales.
      I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest.

      I also need to read The Business of Sex Trafficking by Siddharth Kara, I’ve heard good things about it.

    10. Sunny — on 26th May, 2009 at 3:39 am  

      Hold on a moment, I thought other cultures such as those in the middle east are valid and equal to ours, and that we have no place in condemning such practices as slavery?

      Who said that?

      Good post. but a word of warning for all those people gleeful at slavery in other countries so they can feel all smug - there’s plenty of slavery that also happens in this country.

      When we deny so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ the opportunity to become citizens, then we effectively condemn them to slavery by exploitation.

      But apparently that’s ok because we’re afraid that amnesty might not work in deterring others etc etc.

      In fact Rahila Gupta’s book looks at modern slavery in the UK too - which the ‘superior culture’ is legitimising.

    11. Halima — on 26th May, 2009 at 4:28 am  

      Yes, good post.

      You’d hope with economic development a country’s human rights and CSR standards should also rise.. apparently not.

      I think though it’s not the case that women are seen as ‘slaves’. It’s more that women are not seen an human beings at all, and this is the basis of all abuse and expectation. Poor men are also not regarded as human beings. This is why Amnesty has that campaign strap-line to ‘Protect the Human’.

      All over Nepal I was struck by images of poor women always carrying stones and rocks to load onto trucks being driven by big burley men. One day I asked in my pitiful Nepali, why are women bearing the brunt of the load when the men are sitting by in their big machines. The reply was that ‘ You are making the mistake of looking at these women as women. In Nepal poor women are regarded as mules first.’ I was horrified at the response, but this is the attitude shared by many towards poor people.

      In India, Bangladesh and Nepal, trafficking is linked to parents owing debts to wealthier exploiters and so they sell of off their daughters and also sons (for same sex trafficking which is more exploitative) into India where there is a ready market, especially in the hotels and the circuses. Apparently the traffic from South Asia into India has ebbed this year ( and last year) because the Indian cartels are now trafficking into India from East Africa. How entrepreneurial . I hate to even consider the racial aspects to this phenomenon in a country like India where caste and colour dominates everything. I think the subject of black-on-black sexual exploitation is worthy of debate.

    12. platinum786 — on 26th May, 2009 at 9:18 am  

      It’s good to see that some people can find room to take a dig at Islam even when we’re discussing slavery in 2009.

      To those bottom feeders, and you know who you are, your statements are equivalent to saying Bush was following the example of Jesus and that Israel acts as instructed in the Torah. I think you should scuttle along to StormFront or something an organise an anti Muhammadian protest.

    13. MaidMarian — on 26th May, 2009 at 11:51 am  

      Sonia/Amrit (2, 3, 4) - Thanks for those comments on an underdebated issue. I have to say though I am glad you put those posts on here because there were things in there that I would not have picked up on in the article alone. The stuff about moral relativism may be internet point-scoring but it is important to address that regardless.

      Sunny (10) - ‘When we deny so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ the opportunity to become citizens, then we effectively condemn them to slavery by exploitation.’

      No ‘we’ (whoever that means) don’t. Slavery is about ownership, about not having the choice to walk away. Putting the things you have in mind on a par with the things the article has in mind is a bit of a cheap shot. Exploitation is different, not nice, but different.

      Citizens can be exploited as much as anyone else. To put that on a level with slavery is mixing the issues.

      We deny illegal immigrants citizenship Sunny because there are defined routes to that citizenship which many people have followed (at great expense) in good faith and within the law. It;s not denied for kicks.

      ‘But apparently that’s ok…’

      Who said that?

    14. munir — on 26th May, 2009 at 12:12 pm  

      Humpty Dumpty
      “Hold on a moment, I thought other cultures such as those in the middle east are valid and equal to ours, and that we have no place in condemning such practices as slavery?”

      And I thought only bigots took the worst of a society and then potrayed it as “their culture”

      After the Baby P and numerous other crimes against children do you think British people are suitable parents?

      Common Humanist

      “But…but…..but…… said Islam was a flawless bill of rights………….you lied!”

      No no .. thats Judaism

      Change your name. Seriously.

    15. Random Guy — on 26th May, 2009 at 12:43 pm  

      Sunny @10: Good post, and good points.

    16. Sunny — on 26th May, 2009 at 7:38 pm  

      Slavery is about ownership, about not having the choice to walk away. Putting the things you have in mind on a par with the things the article has in mind is a bit of a cheap shot. Exploitation is different, not nice, but different.

      Hi MM, I said ‘effectively’, which is true if you speak to just a few illegals who are exploited and have to work (sometimes even coerced under the threat that they’d get reported if they didn’t work) just to survive.

      In fact I know of women who ended up in years of slavery (as a houseworker, or sexual) because of threats of being reported and deported to an Indian prison.

      So while I appreciate your verbal gymnastics, I suggest you speak to a few people genuinely caught up in these circumstances, and you’ll realise how dire their situation is.

    17. sonia — on 27th May, 2009 at 8:47 am  

      Slavery-like practices..that’s the point. It’s the not having choices or access to their rights, that ‘depersonalises’ a human, in the same way that slavery effectively enslaved a person. What is different now is that there is recognition that one person LEGALLY cannot ‘own’ another person in the way society accepted that it was possible to do in the past. (even while claiming to accept that slavery was wrong, so there you go).

      From a societal point of view, that difference is critical, particularly to form support to people who are subject to these kinds of treatments at the hands of other people, and to catch the individual offenders.

      From the point of view of the victim, emotionally, it is probably similar. The crucial difference is whether the victims feel any sense of agency to help themselves, and how much societal support there is.

      I thought i should point something out though -its not only women who suffer this -but there is the sexual abuse angle there in particular. Men who work in these kinds of environments - for example in the middle east - male labourers are subject to the same lack of rights and exploitation. It is an issue for any individual of any gender. additionally, there is a physical grueling side to what a lot of the male labourers suffer - and i have not seen too much written about this - is the appalling lack of consideration of their working environments. these guys often have to work in 50+ (celsius) burning heat without adequate shelter, water, remuneration etc.

    18. sonia — on 27th May, 2009 at 8:57 am  

      “When we deny so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ the opportunity to become citizens, then we effectively condemn them to slavery by exploitation.

      Well said Sunny.

      the inter-national system fails many individuals.

      What is really important to recognise is when transnational movement and labour are concerned, the rights available to you depend heavily on the laws/institutions of your nation-state that might protect you (say from the fraud of the manpower org. that sent you there), and the laws/institutions of the one you’re working in. (any shelters etc. what rights have you got, if you’re legal, are you recognised to have the same rights as a citizen etc. etc.). It is a system full of pitfalls and for many poor workers who come from countries like Bangladesh, sri lanka, the phillipines, a lot of those governments are conspiring with the manpower agencies and not pressuring the ‘receiving’ countries to look after their people, in terms of diplomatic representation. lobbying and pressure. (and they prob. have the same issues in their own countries, with their own citizens to boot. co-culprits.) And if you’re working in the middle east /some country where say labour rights aren’t very good then you are really stuffed unless some transnational organisation will turn up and help you out. but in this instance, there really isn’t that much international co-operation.

      There is a big problem out there, and this is highlighting it. The wrong combination of nationality/place of work can really put an individual in a big mess and make it seem they don’t have any rights.

    19. sonia — on 27th May, 2009 at 9:11 am  

      Of course the point is that [with nation-states] that rights are identified and connected very much with [citizen]. globalisation means that many people live and work in a country where they are not a citizen. in many cases,[countries] even legal workers do not the same protection in terms of labour rights as citizens (which obviously is meant to encourage only citizens working there etc. etc.) and in this modern day and age, it means human rights - of all individuals - are going to be compromised in certain situations. i.e. the dominant one where there is a clash of human/citizen rights. in as much as you can only access your ‘human rights’ if you are a citizen, and if you aren’t a citizen, the state shrugs its shoulders and says we can’t help you, sorry.

      ALL States are the same when it comes to this, i.e. they are all there for their ‘citizens’ - its a members club - and so what happens to the non-members, is a good question.

      given this state of play, ‘global’ movement - really ‘inter-national’ movement - is fraught with pitfalls for many individuals - particularly from the poorer nations who do not have good standards of rights at home, never mind when those folk are off in some other country.

      We need a global recognition of this and a supranational response of some kind.

    20. Rumbold — on 27th May, 2009 at 10:19 am  

      I agree with you Sunny in that we are far from free from this scourge in this country. What is the difference between exploitation and slavery? Well, in some cases, not a lot. Slavery as a formalised and legal system does not really exist anyway, so when we talk about slavery what we really mean is gross exploitation- the removal of a person’s freedom to choose.

    21. Humpty Dumpty — on 27th May, 2009 at 4:20 pm  

      “When we deny so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ the opportunity to become citizens, then we effectively condemn them to slavery by exploitation.”

      I don’t accept that. Firstly, slavery and exploitation are two very different things. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are here voluntarily. They may be exploited, but nobody forced them to come here and nobody forces them to stay here. There’s no automatic right to live in this country and they’re free to leave anyway. They made the decision to move here illegally so they have to deal with the consequences.

      Obviously it gets a little more difficult when we’re talking about actual slavery, but from what I’ve seen most of the use of domestic slaves in London tends to be done by wealthy families of backward foreign cultures rather than our own indigenous population. These people may be physically living in the 21st century, but socially and culturally they’re still living in an area where slavery is perfectly acceptable.

    22. Bobby — on 27th May, 2009 at 4:28 pm  

      There are thousands of women from eastern Europe and elsewhere who are forced and blackmailed and coerced into prostitution here in the UK. These women are preyed on by organised criminal gangs and are effectively raped numerous times a day because they are working as prostitutes against their will. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is not just a problem of the middle east or elsewhere.

      I think if a full examination was painted of this issue we would see some very dark secrets uncovered in Britain. When you see adverts for massage parlours in high streets across the land, this is what I am talking about. These people are slaves, and they are enslaved by organised criminal gangs and the economic demand of a rich country and the pressures women face in less developed countries.

    23. Bobby — on 27th May, 2009 at 4:30 pm  

      Humpty Dumpty, the sex worker slaves in the UK are being raped because of the demand of ‘indigenous’ men up and down the land who want paid-for sex as cheap as they can get.

    24. Amrit — on 27th May, 2009 at 4:50 pm  

      I’d just like to step in here and say to all of those who are saying ‘It happens here too’ - YES, WE KNOW! I actually mentioned this in my blog post that Rumbold links to, and urged people to donate to Kalayaan, the charity that supports many of these women here in this country. Unfortunately, the link to make a donation appears to be broken at the moment…

      Can I just say for the benefit of all and sundry: when someone like ‘Humpty Dumpty’ uses a term like ‘indigenous population,’ heed the mental alarm-bells. Probably you all do anyway. Cheers, thanks and good afternoon. :-D

    25. Don — on 27th May, 2009 at 4:50 pm  

      An interesting illustration in that article was that if migrant workers were seen as a single nation it would be the third largest in the world.

      I agree with Sonia, this is a supranational matter. We need to at least look at the possibility of a recognised trans-national advocacy body and an explicit commitment to basic human rights. Just speculating, but bearing in mind the economic importance of migrant workers, would it be too impractical to suggest migrant worker ‘embassies’ in major cities? Somewhere with international recognition where you are their raison d’être rather than a nuisance to be brushed off?

    26. Refresh — on 27th May, 2009 at 7:03 pm  

      Interesting proposition. Sounds like a supra-national body to look after the interests of the stateless.

      In general migrant workers already have embassies they can call on for assistance. However given that the workers play a role in supporting two economies ie the one at home through remittances and the one they are employed in; they are locked in to the system. The home nation would not want to upset the host nation by appearing uppity by way of demanding better conditions. In a way they might as well be stateless. But at the bottom of it all is poverty.

      As I understand it the supra-national body that looks after the interests of the stateless is the UN. A broadening of the definition of stateless could easily include migrant workers.

      The forces that would stand against such a move would be employers’ organisations who rely on cheap labour to maximise profit.

    27. Don — on 27th May, 2009 at 7:37 pm  


      We are in accord.

    28. Rumbold — on 27th May, 2009 at 8:46 pm  

      Although, this would reduce the incentive to hire migrant workers, and thus reduce the amount of money then can send home. However, perhaps this leap forward is necessary, and would still work out as benefical in the long term.

      Not that rights are bad.

    29. Don — on 27th May, 2009 at 8:59 pm  

      Not that rights are bad.

      Slight shiver down the spine.

    30. Refresh — on 27th May, 2009 at 9:08 pm  

      Rumbold, I would like to propose changes by way of an update to the post. At the moment it presents the reality of modern slavery only in the context of the middle east. Its clearly not the whole picture and presents us with the opportunity to remain bystanders on things that only happen elsewhere, understanding that it cuts across cultures, across politics and geography is vital if the intention is to harness support against modern slavery.

      And if we do not understand that it is poverty that is the cause, and has always been the cause of slavery then there really is no point whatsoever in giving publicity to a worthy campaign.

    31. Rumbold — on 27th May, 2009 at 9:47 pm  


      You’re right to say that this is indeed a worldwide problem and I tried to emphasise that in my post. As did Amrit in hers (which is how I found the Guardian article). I focused on the Middle East, as that is what the Guardian article focused on, and where many migrant workers are. Reading Amrit’s post and the Guardian article whetted my appetite over this, so expect to see something on abuses within Britain fairly soon.

    32. Refresh — on 27th May, 2009 at 10:07 pm  

      Good to hear Rumbold. Although it is not at all clear. And the way it comes across is tht the whole of the arab people are ridden with modern slavery. Which is obviously errant nonsense. And goes on to hint at it being in the blood - based on their ancestry.

      Did you get a chance to read the article I linked to from this week’s Observer Magazine?

    33. Refresh — on 27th May, 2009 at 10:14 pm  

      My mistake, your link is actually the same as mine. Guardian/Observer same thing.

    34. halima — on 28th May, 2009 at 3:38 am  

      There is the International Labour Organisation that protects the rights of all workers - including migrants, and indeed, the ILO’s work on decent work is for all, not just those in formal sectors.

      I think the ILO is the technical body of the UN responsible for decent work.

      I recently saw a presentation they made on the 20 million migrant workers in China alone who got laid off since end of 2008 - and the impliction of migrant workers returning home and remittance drying up is a very serious social issue.

      In fact - remittance drying up in other parts of the world is a major source of anxiety. Women in most countries of the world are recipients of remittance money. When there is a loss in household income, it’s health and education that are the first costs to be cut. Women end up taking dispoportionate amounts of care work to compensate for it.

      I’d be interested in seeing a discussion on remittance and returning migrants and the social impact.

      I recently failed the facebook British citizenship test and see it in my personal interest to push the interests of migrants.:-D

    35. Rumbold — on 28th May, 2009 at 9:20 am  

      I noticed that Refresh, but didn’t want to say anything.


      Oops. That was supposed to be a clarification too. My original point was that too much regulation in some cases can actually harm workers, as it reduces the incentive for employers to hire them.

    36. Humpty Dumpty — on 28th May, 2009 at 3:26 pm  

      Bobby, I won’t argue about the sex trade. A lot of what’s going on there is slavery, no two ways about it. Any rapes should obviously be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Though it’s not exclusively a western thing, you get women trafficked to non-western countries such as the gulf states (Admittedly, Dubai is full of westerners but it’s not just restricted to there) as well.

      But I do think we need to distinguish between actual slavery (As in forced labour) and the more widespread but ultimately voluntary forms of exploitation. Unscrupulous employers who take advantage of cheap illegal immigrant labour need to be prosecuted and sent to prison, but lumping that in with the real slavery that goes on all over the world simply trivialises the latter.

    37. halima — on 28th May, 2009 at 4:18 pm

      Anti-Slavery’s descriptions of modern slavery today .

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