The Political Economy of New Slavery

By Abbott, Dina | Capital & Class, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Political Economy of New Slavery


Abbott, Dina, Capital & Class


Christien van den Anker (ed.) The Political Economy of New Slavery Palgrave Macmillan, New York and Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2004, 272 pp. ISBN 1-4039-1523-7 (pbk) £16.99 ISBN 1-4039-1522-9 (hbk) £50

There is an ever-growing body of literature on international migration, the international division of labour within the context of globalisation, and on the consequences for the several millions of vulnerable people caught up in these processes.

These consequences are wideranging, and human stories of exploited household domestic migrants, illegal factory workers, paid-sex workers, child labour and human trafficking abound. These stories are often known to national and international bodies, as well as to the general public.

However, the uncomfortable questions associated with them are generally hidden away until some horrendous, tragic incident, perhaps involving fatalities, suddenly forces them to the forefront of individual and collective consciousness.

Such incidents often cause an outcry for a while-at least for a day or two, until the media focus has shifted onto something else. One example is that of the twenty Chinese illegal migrants who were drowned whilst picking cockles in Morecambe Bay, north-west England, on February 5 2004. Arguably, both the Chinese and British governments have been aware of illegal migration and human trafficking from China for several decades-after all, there have been previous incidents to suggest this.

However, at the time of this particular tragedy, both the Chinese and British officials acknowledged that they had been unaware of the existence of those who drowned that day. And while the story made newspaper headlines for a number of days, shocking both the public and the authorities, it was soon yesterday's news.

The Political Economy of New Slavery is therefore a timely book, and a useful addition to existing literature, bringing together views from both academics and activists on what it calls new forms of contemporary slavery. While recognising that the term 'contemporary slavery' may conjure up sensationalist imagery through its association with older, transatlantic forms, the book begins by arguing that there are parallels between the older and newer forms of slavery. These parallels can be found in the violation of rights to freedom of movement, when passports and identity papers are withheld from many domestic household workers in richer countries; where millions of people today are forced to work though debt bondage or other forms of exploitative practices with little or no pay; where people are subjected to mental and physical violence, torture or inhumane and degrading treatment; and where they have little or no right to own property, or to earn a fair wage. Contemporary slavery thus comes in many different forms, and there are several crossovers. Nevertheless, the book urges the recognition of parallels between these older and newer forms of slavery, because this will allow contemporary practice to become more visible, in turn making the task of raising awareness of it, and campaigning against it, more effective.

In fact, the need to raise awareness and contribute effectively to ending contemporary slavery is the central purpose of the book. Thus, while it offers academic insights and analysis of the many forms of slavery within a current context of globalisation, one of the major strengths of this book is that most of the chapters also reflect on international law, and on practical goals towards international action and policymaking. There are three parts to the book. Part I theorises on the intricacies of globalisation and the resultant complex and varied forms of contemporary slavery. It also considers the effect that globalisation has on changing migration patterns, and the effect of an increase in the smuggling and trafficking of human beings within liberal democracies, which regard this development as a security threat, requiring them to protect their own citizens.

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