Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Exponential Rise of Modern Slavery

"Workers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains." - The Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The practice of slavery has existed for thousands of years. Although it is now universally illegal - the last country to abolish it was Mauritania in 1981 - according to the inaugural global slavery index over 29 million people (equivalent to the population of Venezuela) are currently held in slavery. Most are bonded laborers in Asia - notably Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal – people whose bodies are collateral for debts which, in many cases, will never diminish or be paid off. Many modern slaves are children, who are particularly susceptible to sexual abuse, while those aged younger than ten are often trained to commit crimes in order to take advantage of the fact that they fall below the age of criminal responsibility. It is estimated that the slave trade generates around $35 billion annually.

Human trafficking is also thriving. Although there is debate about the numbers, the United Nations estimated (pdf) in 2008 that 2.5 million people from 127 countries are being trafficked into 137 countries at any time, pressed into the sex industry or being used for forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation. Organ or tissue removal is also common. It is extremely profitable, making it a priority for international criminal gangs – an estimated $31.6 billion a year is brought in, only slightly less than that made from arms trading or drug smuggling. This industry is growing and is expected to overtake drug trafficking as the most profitable criminal industry in the future.

The Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations met in Washington, DC on April 29. In the opening statements, it was observed that experts say there are more slaves in the world now than at any time in human history.

These are damning statistics which make a mockery of any claim that humanity follows an equitable system of rights and justice. Mass slavery requires a high population density to be viable. The rapidly increasing world population combined with the mass influx to major urban centers ensures this. Efforts against human trafficking by the UN and other agencies are doomed to fail, lacking significant political will and support against an ever rising human tide of misery and need.

Slavery can be defined as a system under which humans are regarded as property that can be bought and sold. Every slave is therefore a prisoner, denied the freedom that most of us take for granted. However, the classical definition of slavery is insufficient to encompass certain developments that have taken shape over recent decades.

Consider, for example, the rise of private prisons in the US. Matt Taibbi, a writer who mostly covers major Wall Street financial scandals, was interviewed on Democracy Now about his new book which describes the justice divide in the US, an enormous scandal in itself. He began by pointing out the different ways the rich and the poor are treated:

[...] I was in a law office in Brooklyn, and I was actually waiting to speak to a lawyer about another case, when I met this 35-year-old African-American man, a bus driver. And I asked him what he was there for, and he told me that he had been arrested for, quote-unquote, "obstructing pedestrian traffic." And I thought he was kidding. You know, I didn’t know what that meant. And I asked him to show me his summons, and he pulled out a little—little piece of pink paper, and there it was. It was written, you know, "obstructing pedestrian traffic," which it turns out it meant that he was standing in front of his own house at 1:00 in the morning, and the police just didn’t like the way he looked and arrested him.

And this is part of the disorderly conduct statute here in New York, but this is one of these offenses that people get roped in for. It’s part of what a city councilman in another city called an "epidemic of false arrests," basically these new stats-based police strategies. The whole idea is to rope in as many people as you can, see how many of them have guns or warrants, and then basically throw back the innocent ones. But the problem is they don’t throw back everybody. They end up sweeping up a lot of innocent people and charging them with really pointless crimes.

Yeah, and this is something that I encountered over and over and over again, is that people who were charged with these minor sort of harassing offenses, they—when the state discovers that the case against them is not very good, they start offering deals to the accused. And when people protest that "I’m not going to plead, because I didn’t do anything wrong," they keep offering better and better and better deals. And no one can understand why they won’t plead guilty, because, in reality, most people do.

Taibbi then talked about what happens when bankers commit major crimes:

So, HSBC, again, this is one of the world’s largest banks. It’s Europe’s largest bank. And a few years ago, they got caught, swept up for a variety of offenses, money-laundering offenses. But one of them involved admitting that they had laundered $850 million for a pair—for two drug cartels, one in Mexico and one in South America, and including the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico that is suspected in thousands of murders.

And in that case, they paid a fine; they paid a $1.9 billion fine. And some of the executives had to defer their bonuses for a period of five years—not give them up, defer them. But there were no individual consequences for any of the executives. Nobody had to pull money out of their own pockets for permanently. And nobody did a single day in jail in that case.

And that, to me, was an incredibly striking case. I ran that very day to the courthouse here in New York, and I asked around to the public defenders, you know, "What’s the dumbest drug case you had today?" And I found somebody who had been thrown in Rikers for 47 days for having a joint in his pocket. So—

The documentary 'The House I Live In' by Eugene Jarecki and featuring David Simon of The Wire fame, summarized in an earlier 99.99998271% article here, detailed the devastating effects on American society of the 'war on drugs'. A major theme of the documentary is the number of human beings incarcerated for long periods of time for relatively minor, victimless crimes. Some relevant points from the article (in note form):

The US has more prisoners than any other nation: 2.3 million prisoners in 2012. Russia a bit below in second. China a long way behind in third. Around a million are black Americans, most male, many for non-violent drug offenses.

Since Nixon announced the drug war in 1971, it has cost over $1 trillion and resulted in over 45 million arrests. In this period, illegal drug use has remained unchanged.

US has 5% of world’s population. Has 25% of all prisoners. 500,000 incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes.

More poor black people incarcerated or on probation/parole than there were slaves in 1850.

2.7 million kids had a parent behind bars in 2012.

Crack cocaine was punished 100 times more severely than powder cocaine use. White execs used powder cocaine, crack cocaine used on the streets.

Judge says a defendant with 5g of crack is given 5 years - the same as someone with 500g of powder cocaine.

Most users of cocaine are white, but 90% of defendants in federal system are black.

One guy has life without parole for three grams of meth...three strikes and you’re out.

Prison services are big business. Many corporations - health providers, taser manufacturers, etc. need prison industry.

In order to keep prisons successful businesses, you need a constant stream of prisoners.

These prisoners, almost all no danger to society and denied their human right to life and freedom, are essentially slaves, subjected to sexual abuse and utilised as cheap labor for corporations already awash in money but sociopathically content nonetheless to use a miserable subclass of humanity to increase their quarterly profits.

Is this slavery? From a recent article [see original for sources]:

While cheap sweatshop labor is becoming increasingly common across the country, no one takes better advantage of the system than prisons.

Alternet reports that almost 1 million prisoners are doing simple unskilled labor including “making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.” They continue:

“Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance — unless, that is, you traveled back to the nineteenth century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide…. It was one vital way the United States became a modern industrial capitalist economy — at a moment, eerily like our own, when the mechanisms of capital accumulation were in crisis.”

Compare the cost of less than $5 a day with the cost of a minimum wage worker at $58 a day and you begin to see the perverse influence on the entire labor market.

CNN Money reports that prison inmates are now directly competing for jobs in the rest of the economy, and employers are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up. Lost jobs are the result. They cite one company, American Apparel Inc., which makes military uniforms. They write:

“‘We pay employees $9 on average,’ [a company executive] said. ‘They get full medical insurance, 401(k) plans and paid vacation. Yet we’re competing against a federal program that doesn’t pay any of that.’

[The private prison] is not required to pay its workers minimum wage and instead pays inmates 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. It doesn’t have health insurance costs. It also doesn’t shell out federal, state or local taxes.”

The new influx of cheap, domestic labor will inevitably drive down wages for both skilled and unskilled jobs.


According to the 2011 report from Department of Justice, nearly one in 10 prisoners report having been raped or sexually assaulted by other inmates, staff or both. According to a revised report from the US Department of Justice, there were 216,000 victims of rape in US prisons in 2008. That is roughly 600 a day or 25 every hour.

Those numbers are of victims, not instances, which would be much higher since many victims were reportedly assaulted multiple times throughout the year. Excluding prison rapes, there about 200,000 rapes per year in America, and roughly 91 percent of those victims are women. If these numbers are accurate, this means that America is the only country in the world where more men are raped than women.

Even if the number of unreported rapes outside of prison were substantially larger than most experts believe, the fact that many victims in prison tend to be raped repeatedly would indicate that rape against men is at least comparable to rape against women.

Kendell Spruce was one such inmate, sentenced to six years for forging a check for which he hoped to purchase crack cocaine. In a National Prison Rape Elimination Commission testimony, Spruce said:

“I was raped by at least 27 different inmates over a nine month period. I don’t have to tell you that it was the worst nine months of my life… [I] was sent into protective custody. But I wasn’t safe there either. They put all kinds of people in protective custody, including sexual predators. I was put in a cell with a rapist who had full-blown AIDS. Within two days, he forced me to give him oral sex and anally raped me.”

Spruce was diagnosed with “full blown AIDS” in 2002 and died three years later.

Perception is a key issue. The standard image invoked of slavery is that of black men in cotton fields, a tale with a 'happy' ending: freedom ultimately granted. There is a prevailing view, however, that anyone in prison deserves whatever abuse they suffer (even if that means multiple instances of rape, labor exploitation and solitary confinement); that if they didn't want to 'do the time' they shouldn't have 'done the crime'. This grotesque simplification of the deep complexities of each individual case reflects a general dumbing down of social realities throughout modern media, creating desensitization to human suffering on a massive scale and consequently little or no public interest in reform.

It is not only the incarcerated who are slaves or prisoners: the definition can be extended to almost every human being.

The poor and unemployed, many living day to day in a brutal battle for survival, despised by many of their compatriots as a result of vulgar, cynical media campaigns of division and deception, depend in many cases on food banks and possess no hope whatsoever for the future. In the UK, benefits can be stopped for minor transgressions, leading to serious life repercussions for the 'offender'. Few jobs are available as demonstrated by the huge numbers applying for even menial work. With rents, transportation costs and energy bills soaring, there can be no other description for this than a form of prison. Indeed, there seems to be more chance of escaping from a real prison.

Consider the UK's Help To Work scheme, described in an article by Suzanne Moore:

The rules now in place were announced last year by Osborne and are now fronted by Duncan Smith and Esther McVey. The harshest sanctions apply to the long-term unemployed (one in 30 claimants, who have been out of work for more than three years). These people – living the life of Riley, presumably – will now have to attend a jobcentre every day or commit to six months of voluntary work or a training scheme, or payments will be stopped.

This is called Help to Work. Doublespeak. For it doesn't help and it won't work. Jobcentres are not geared up to cope with such numbers, and many leading charities such as Oxfam are boycotting mandatory work placements because they think the key word in voluntary work is, er, voluntary. If it isn't, we are basically talking about community service, which you would get for being found guilty of an offence.

The government's own research indicates that unpaid work placements are not increasing the chances of claimants finding work. But, yet again, this policy is not about finance (it will actually cost money if travel fares to jobcentres are paid); it is an ideological assault that seeks to undermine the very idea of unemployment benefit.

As Cameron said on a visit to a jobcentre this week: "The day of giving people benefit cheques and not asking for anything in return – those days are gone." Forcing people to work for free will push people into "proper" work, he reckons. McVey suggests that forcing people to sign in at jobcentres every day will improve their lives. They make such statements with straight and shiny faces.

I know what they are, but what have we become? Has the "skivers" narrative taken such root that we now all accept that the unemployed are Untermenschen who personally steal from us via state benefits when there are perfectly good jobs they are refusing to do?

Work or lose the meager benefits you have: coercion. Slavery.

Even the more financially comfortable are not truly free, though most may think they are. Sure, you can walk down the street wearing whatever you like; you can choose your hobbies and interests without interference. As Bill Hicks once pointed out, however, try going somewhere without money to find out how truly free you are. Try shining a light on illegal activities of powerful corporations or governments, as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou and many others have done, to see how democratic your society really is.

Further, which candidate is a US citizen who opposes murdering Muslim children with drones in nations that pose no threat to him or her supposed to vote for, given that both major parties have identical foreign policies? Voting for a third party might be a popular suggestion here, but with third parties routinely sidelined, derided even, by the media, this is not viable. What should our hypothetical US citizen do if they do not wish their tax dollars funding the war machine or the illegal activities of the NSA?

One is 'free' as long as they submit to a system that rewards only the very rich and they are brainwashed to believe throughout their lives that this is indeed freedom, with some even drawing comparisons with those in far worse situations and believing that they are therefore somehow 'lucky' to be so 'free', as if freedom were some kind of sliding scale. Hint: it is not.

In a more intangible but no less devastating fashion, almost all of us exist in a mental prison, kept distracted by a corporate-owned media with a vested interest in presenting a false view of reality, one that not-at-all-coincidentally benefits them greatly. The many layers of distraction and lies deployed daily work effectively at keeping the restless billions under control, misdirecting their despair, frustration and anger into harmless channels that do not threaten those in control of the planet's resources and key institutions.

The so-called 'austerity' drive, yet another propaganda term that invokes the positive, traditional idea of tightening belts and living frugally, is in fact an ideologically-driven profit grab for the rich. The speed of the break-up of the UK's National Health Service, for instance, can be explained easily by this mind-boggling list of corrupt Conservative Lords with links to private healthcare firms that stand to profit. The Equality Trust thinktank in March released a report saying that inequality costs Britain £39 billion a year due to the 'impact on health, wellbeing and crime rates'. If austerity were truly about cutting spending, solving inequality would be a priority (behind tackling tax havens) as that would save far more money. Meanwhile, there is always plenty of cash available for war adventures all over the world in nations that pose no threat, or, say, £200 million for a new polar research ship.

On International Worker's Day, known to many as May Day, when we are to celebrate workers and their rights, it is hard to find enthusiasm. The evil of slavery thrives unseen behind walls of deflection. Lament this...then stand up and act. One increasingly wonders how bad things will have to become before the realization sets in that life is not the Hollywood version of reality: that some kind of superhero is going to appear in the nick of time and save the planet. The people and their corrupt elected officials are in an abusive relationship like any other: for many it is hard to imagine life without the abuser and they therefore keep accepting the abuse. But when enough courage is raised to make a clean break; when one realises that these deeply limited, banal individuals are not in fact needed at all; that there are far better alternatives available (like this for starters)...the result is pure liberation.

Acting upon this will engender a further realization: that the human spirit is being tamed, wasted, wracked utterly by virulently aggressive cancers: 'growth', profit, capitalism. Take the first steps toward leaving the mental prison: turn off the television. Boycott the corporate media and support reliable independent sources of news both financially and with clicks. Do not vote for any candidate that is part of the existing paradigm. And discover that you have been systematically misled since the day you were born. In short, stop playing the game, because the game is certainly playing you.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

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