Winning the Fight: Eradicating Slavery in the Modern Age

By Bales, Kevin | Harvard International Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Winning the Fight: Eradicating Slavery in the Modern Age


Bales, Kevin, Harvard International Review


The money in Ghana has always been down on the coast. Poor religious and tribal minorities live in the North, where Ibrahim was born. Orphaned at the age of nine, Ibrahim set off with his uncle in search of work. They followed rumors to the gold mines in Ashanti state, expecting to be paid well. The jobs in the big company mines sounded perfect: training, equipment, a regular salary, and sometimes even housing were provided. Employees could even access medical care if they needed it. But when Ibrahim and his uncle reached the mining town of Obuasi, they found no jobs. Because they lacked the requisite education and recommendations, mining companies firmly turned away

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Unemployed and without any friends in the area, the two travelers became extremely hungry. Ibrahim's uncle looked everywhere for work and soon both he and his nephew fell into the hands of a gangster. He led a mining operation at a hidden deep shaft mine where gold, chiseled out by hand, was hauled to the surface one bag at a time on the backs of men and boys. Ibrahim's uncle was enlisted into an eight-person gang and advanced a little money to buy food. Too small for the hard work of hauling bags of stone, Ibrahim ran errands, fetched tools, and hauled the occasional load of rock. While his uncle kept him out of the deep mine where cave-ins were common, Ibrahim's life was no picnic. Everyone felt free to use Ibrahim as they liked, and small mistakes on his part led to beatings, sometimes with the flat side of a machete. He became the victim of the hunger and frustration that the workers felt.

After three months, the slavery trap closed. It came time for the gang organizer, a local gold buyer, to settle up with Ibrahim's uncle and the other migrant workers in the gang. The gold buyer told them that the advance of money, in addition to the other food and tools that had been provided over three months, far exceeded their share of the gold they had extracted from the mine. When the "normal" interest of 50 percent was added to the debt, it grew into what was for them a huge sum. "Don't worry," said the gold buyer, "you'll get lucky with some rich ore soon and make plenty to pay me back. Meanwhile, I'll advance you a little more so you'll have the food to keep working."

Given that they had not made enough to pay their debt, the workers even felt lucky that the gold-buyer was willing to keep them on. They felt they had no choice but agree to 50 percent interest accruing every three months. With harder work, they reasoned, they could pay off their debts easily. So they began again, working even harder and decreasing expenditures by consuming only one meal a day.

Ibrahim and his uncle had fallen into one of the most common traps that lead to slavery today. The combination of their desperation, what seems to be legitimate work, a sense of personal honor, and a snowballing debt drew them tightly under the control of a slaveholder. The trap closed fully when they learned that attempting to leave the mine would be met with violence. Under the violent control of another person, lacking freewill, being economically exploited, and paid nothing, just after his tenth birthday, Ibrahim was a slave.

Even though 2008 was the 200th anniversary year of the abolition of the slave trade in the United States, slavery is still found elsewhere and has turned up in surprising places. The trade may have been outlawed, but the practice still reaches into our homes and businesses, perhaps more than even than is acknowledged. Most of us learn about modern slavery from the heart-wrenching stories of individuals like Ibrahim enslaved in the developing world, trafficked into prostitution, or forced labor in the West. But there is a larger, historic account that scholars and activists are only now uncovering as they explore the role of slavery in the global economy.

With the end of the Cold War, human trafficking and slavery have experienced a revival in business.

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