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Forgotten and invisible: modern-day slaves

As long as the world turns a blind eye to exploitation, every sane human being is complicit in a crime

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Forgotten and invisible: modern-day slaves

Indian sex workers look out from their brothel in the red light district of Kamathipura in Mumbai. Socially conservative India, Bangladesh and Pakistan do not permit legal prostitution but all have brothels spilling with sex workers. (Photo: AFP)

In today’s modern world overshadowed by extravagant globalization, materialism and consumerism, it is very common for people to forget about people who are less fortunate.

These people with relative fortune and comfort might get a jolt if asked what they think about slavery and slaves. In most cases, the answer is likely to be simple: slavery was abolished in the 19th century.

The British parliament passed its Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 and the US government made the 13th amendment to the constitution in 1865, marking the official abolition of slavery.

However, slavery didn’t end with its abolition 154 years ago. It has just changed forms and continues to plague millions of people in the world today.  

The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on Dec. 2 passed almost unnoticed in much of the globe as if our world today has almost pulled itself out of the curse of slavery.

The reality is that about 40 million people are trapped in various forms of modern-day slavery and one in every four victims are children, according to the United Nations.

The irony is that no international or national law define slavery, but the International Labor Organization (ILO) notes that the term slavery covers practices such as forced labor, debt bondage, forced marriage and human trafficking, referring to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception and/or abuse of power.

Modern-day slaves are virtually everywhere in the world, but the gravity of inhuman slavery is usually seen in less developed third world countries like Bangladesh.

But these people caught in slavery are not cared for by society or the state, and there is little or no talk about ending their plight. They are the invisible slaves of the modern world.

Slavery on tea estates

About 100,000 people work in Bangladesh’s tea industry on 164 tea estates. Including family members, their community numbers about 700,000. These lower-caste people migrated to then East Bengal (now Bangladesh) during the British colonial period duped by false promises of better lives from British tea planters. These poor, marginalized communities thought their migration was short term only to realize later that their servitude was for eternity.

The British left after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, and Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan through a bloody war in 1971.

The life of a tea worker remains a perfect example of modern-day slavery. A tea picker receives a daily wage of 102 taka (US$1.20) for plucking 23 kilograms of leaves. In addition, they get a weekly ration of 3kg of food. A registered worker lives in a one-room, mud-walled and thatch-roofed house provided by the tea company where the worker’s family can live as long as a member has a job on the estate.

The labor law stipulates that children of tea workers should attend schools, but the estates have no schools because the owners discourage education and other vocational skills, fearing the next generation of tea workers might leave the industry. There are hospitals on the estates, but often doctors and medicines are not available, so misery knows no bounds when tea workers or their family members fall seriously ill.

A tea worker’s daily pay is five times less than that of an agricultural worker in the countryside or a poor rickshaw puller in the city. This is an extreme form of discrimination that forces them to live in misery every day and there is no way out.

They are citizens of Bangladesh but cannot enjoy citizens’ rights. They are exploited as vote banks for political parties during local and national elections.

Largely confined in so-called “labor lines,” tea workers are excluded from the majority Bengali community, and their centuries of detachment from their Indian origins has led to a gradual decline of their language and culture.

Tea workers in northeast India and Sri Lanka also bear the same legacy of British tea planters. Although their daily pay is higher than that of tea workers in Bangladesh, their conditions are similar — poor, exploited and marginalized.

Recent research on tea workers in these South Asian countries shows that nothing has significantly changed for them at all.

Tea workers continue to live in slave-like conditions, and the only change is that local slave drivers have replaced the British colonial masters. The situation is unlikely to change in the coming years and decades.

Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world after water. And the cup of tea you are drinking right now might have been plucked by a slave.

An elderly female tea picker works on one of Bangladesh's 164 tea estates. They receive a daily wage of only 102 taka (US$1.20) and live in slave-like conditions. (Photo: AFP)

The flesh industry

Another group of slaves rarely talked about are women and girls in the commercial and non-commercial sex trade.

According to the ILO, women and girls account for 58 percent of the estimated 25 million forced laborers in the world, and about 99 percent are victims of commercial sex trafficking.

In addition, more than 15 million women are forced into unequal marriages, which the ILO also regards as a form of slavery. Another unofficial statistic shows there are more than 40 million sex workers in the world.

Thousands of women and underage girls become victims of trafficking every year from poor and undeveloped countries like Bangladesh. They end up in the sex industry that generates an estimated US$99 billion globally each year.

An ILO report says 70 percent of sex trafficking victims are from Asia and the Pacific, 14 percent from Europe and Central Asia, and only 4 percent from the Americas.

Socially and religiously conservative countries like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan do not permit legal prostitution, but all these countries have brothels spilling with sex workers and an unending flow of customers.

However, most of these sex workers didn’t come to the flesh trade by choice but by force. Many are victims of sex trafficking, forced and unequal child marriages, and rape and sexual abuse, and a handful inherited the profession from their mothers who lived and died in brothels.

There are plenty of cases involving young married girls being sold to brothels by their fake husbands and in-laws soon after the so-called honeymoon period was over.

Sex workers face even worse forms of disrespect and discrimination than tea workers. The money they earn from serving customers is mostly snatched by their pimps and masters, while they have to bribe law enforcement agencies to keep the business going. 

Society regards these women as nothing less than sinners and fallen women. If a woman gets pregnant by chance, often she must have a risky abortion to save her body for business. Children born to sex workers are not allowed to attend schools, and there are almost no government and non-government support systems for sex workers and their children.

A tragic saga unfolds when sex workers or their children die in the brothels. They are not allowed to be buried or cremated in regular burial sites but are taken to secret places away from the public’s eye. Society has created and sustained the sex trade for centuries, but sex workers are exploited, hated and disrespected from life to death.       

The world remains largely apathetic to the plight of millions caught up in modern-day slavery in various forms — forced labor, bonded labor, human trafficking, ancestral slavery (people inheriting slavery from ancestors), child labor and forced marriages.

These people are human beings like us, but they are less fortunate, mostly unloved and uncared for. As long as the world endures modern-day slavery in silence, every sane human being is complicit in a crime that denies victims a better and dignified life.

Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist for ucanews based in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.   

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