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You Might Not See It, But It Still Exists

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A few days ago, I sat under a porch as the rain poured in South India listening to the story of a former bonded labourer. Like many others I had heard, his story was notable not because of its hardship, which was of course desperate, but its subtlety.

This will no doubt seem an odd idea, in part because our images of slavery portray an era that bears little resemblance to our own. White heroes like Atticus Finch are no longer required, as the African American is no longer helpless. Uncle Tom can turn to American law instead of the Bible. At least in theory.

Yet if the shackles of modern slavery are rarely visible to you and me, it does not follow that they are absent. Slaves still lack the basic conditions required for human dignity.

In South India, the decision as to whether a labourer, like the man I spoke to, is or is not a slave is made on the basis of a form. This form consists of a set of questions placed on a scale of 'an ascending likelihood that this individual is a bonded labourer'. Once the form has been completed, a senior government official stamps it if she believes the labourer to be a slave, or sends it back if she does not. To an outsider, the very word slave seems to have little to do with a form, which surely cannot be an adequate measure of the liberty and basic dignity of a human life.

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But a tangible difference in the quality of life of these labourers lies behind the answers to these questions. Consider the two individuals standing in front of me. The man to my right is paid a daily wage of around £2.20, is free to work when he chooses, and can send both his children to local government schools. The man to my left is paid 65 pence a day, must work when he is sick for fear of a beating, and is forced to bring his wife and children with him to work in the fields.

If you were to observe the two at work, such differences may not be obvious. There may not even be a contract where they are written down, as agricultural labour, like so much labour in India, is often informal. Instead those who have little to do with the labourer's everyday existence, like me, must point out and communicate their oppression.

It is an uncomfortable but perhaps unavoidable fact that modern slaves do not have much of a voice. Often local politicians who could lobby for their release are those who employ or own slaves. More importantly, modern slavery is a lucrative business. The ILO estimates illegal profits from forced labour to be around $44 billion.

Humans are worth a lot of money. To own one, for whatever length of time, is to be in possession of potential. A human can produce valuable commodities or offer lucrative sexual services. She can be married in exchange for money or can give birth to children, who offer the same potential financial rewards for another generation.

We encounter the realization of this potential everywhere. Take the iPad you may be reading this piece on. Californians designed it. Congolese, Rwandans or Brazillians probably extracted the cobalt used in its chip. Taiwanese employees of Foxconn most likely manufactured it in China. Then the stocky fellow from the Apple Store down the road persuaded you it was a must-have. Our nascent understanding of whether the goods we use have been produced by slaves is still inadequate. I will return to this problem in a later post.

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Given that so many commodities seem to be produced by modern slaves, there is little incentive to give slaves a platform on which they can communicate their plight. A myriad of arguments exist as to how best to end this exploitation. Create better, more extensive unions; prosecute those who employ or traffic slaves; rescue, rehabilitate and reintegrate them; establish police units whose sole purpose is to investigate cases of slavery. Most organisations working on the problem employ a combination of these methods.

It may therefore be true that modern slavery no longer always involves whips, chains, sweat and black skin. But we lack an accurate image through which we can portray the lives of around 21 million modern slaves (ILO estimate).

All of us ought to understand better the complex economic and social forces that perpetuate slavery. Around 90% of slaves in South Asia, who constitute roughly half of the world's slaves, are Dalits (previously 'untouchables'). Many of us simply have no idea what it means to be a Dalit.

Over the next two months this blog will host pieces of reporting and analysis of modern slavery in India. They will explore just two forms of modern slavery - bonded labour and forced prostitution - and their relation to a number of economic and social forces. If nothing else, they hope to tell some of the stories of modern slaves, and leave the reader with a better understanding of why, despite its international illegality, modern slavery persists.

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