Slavery `Worse Now Than under Roman Empire'

By Burrell, Ian | The Independent (London, England), December 2, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Slavery `Worse Now Than under Roman Empire'


Burrell, Ian, The Independent (London, England)


SLAVERY IS more common around the world than at any time in human history, according to the latest research by a British-based academic who advises the United Nations.

Kevin Bales, a professor of sociology at the University of Surrey in Roehampton, has calculated that 27 million people now live as slaves, more than in the Roman Empire or at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. He said that although legal ownership of people was no longer claimed, modern slaves lived in worse conditions than when the practice was lawful. His comments coincide with today's United Nations International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

Professor Bales said that slavery was becoming increasingly common in Western countries such as Britain as human trafficking led to people being tricked into domestic service and prostitution. The problem was often not taken seriously by the authorities because modern forms of exploitation did not exactly match traditional ideas of slavery. "They must understand that slavery is a relationship between two people marked by dominance. No one would argue that marriage is the same now as it was in 1850. Slavery has changed too."

Slave transactions featured in the earliest written records and had occurred in various forms almost throughout human history. "Sometimes it has been part of the legal system and sometimes it has not. At the moment it is not part of the legal system," he said.

Professor Bales, who is a member of the UN's working group on contemporary forms of slavery, said his 27 million figure had been accepted by the UN. It was calculated by researchers analysing conditions in countries around the world over several years.

Professor Bales said his research team had used a "narrow" definition of slavery, which did not include the millions of people working in sweatshops or doing prison labour. "Slavery is people who are completely controlled by another person using violence or the threat of violence and are paid absolutely nothing. It would apply to someone in Mississippi in 1850 as it does today. These are people who are enslaved."

Professor Bales said the number of slaves in the world had "increased dramatically" since 1950 partly as a consequence of a steep rise in the global population.

He said great economic changes in the developing world had forced people to abandon stable but poor rural existences to live in "destitution" in shanty towns, where they were subject to "economic and social vulnerability".

Those factors had been compounded by growing levels of police and government corruption, which allowed different forms of slavery to flourish.

The most common form of modern slavery was debt bondage, where a person pledged himself or herself against a loan. That was particularly prevalent in the Indian sub- continent. Another growth area was contract slavery, where workers were tricked into signing away their rights. That was found in south-east Asia, Brazil, Africa, some Arab states and parts of India.

War slavery - where civilians were forced into unpaid work on military construction projects - existed in Burma and Sudan.

The common view of the problem - chattel slavery, where people were born or sold into the possession of another - was increasingly rare but still found in north and west Africa and some Arab states. Unlike America in the early 19th century, when African plantation workers could cost the modern equivalent of pounds 40,000 and were an important investment, modern slaves were plentiful and cheap.

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