The Sorrows of Globalization: Capitalism and Slavery


A major investigation by the International Labor Organization has found that 12.3 million people live in a condition of ‘modern slavery’ worldwide, on all continents and in nearly every country. Three out of four forced laborers usually enslaved by private agents, with 11% forced into prostitution or another form of commercial sexual activity and 64% working as bonded laborers in traditional sectors of the economy, including the industrial and agricultural sectors. Twenty percent of the cases studied in the examination involved direct exploitation by a state or military, including forced prison labor. Slavery is an extremely lucrative industry, generating 31.6 billion dollars in profit every year, comparable to El Salvador’s Gross Domestic Product and an approximately $13,000 per forced laborer annually.

The distinction between traditional slavery and wage slavery proves to be difficult to articulate. The ILO officially defines slavery as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” According to this definition, sweat-shop labor should qualify as a form of slavery, as it constitutes the extraction of labor under the threat of a penalty, starvation; which no person endures by his or her own choice. It seems clear that a person working for Wal-Mart in a Chinese sweatshop making between 13 and 23 cents an hour and forced to work 60 to 70 hours a week or be fired and face starvation should be classified as a slave; however, the ILO does not consider sweatshop labor to be a form of slavery, on the precarious grounds that forced labor encompasses only coercion that is a “severe violation of human rights and restriction of human freedom,” violations which apparently do not occur in “situations of pure economic necessity” that would force one to work in a sweatshop.

Whether or not direct capitalist exploitation meets the definition of slavery, however, the ILO report shows clearly that forced labor exists primarily because of conditions imposed by a system of capitalist globalization. The report explains that “many victims enter forced labor situations initially of their own accord,” undoubtedly consenting to horrific conditions out of sheer desperation for any sort of income, which cannot be earned in other sectors of the economy due to the crippling of any attempt at economic development in third world countries by multinational corporations and their financial institutions. Because social welfare apparatuses have been dismantled as a prerequisite for economic loans from the World Bank, for instance, people in abject poverty have no choice but to enter into forced labor situations to pay for life necessities such as health care and education or simply to receive food.

Neoliberal policies which allow first world corporations to flood third world economies with cheap, subsidized products such as foodstuffs that drive local producers out of production are another reason for the desperate poverty in the third world. Because of the ‘race to the bottom’ brought about by the transition to neoliberalism in the world economy which allows corporations to move effortlessly from one country to another in search of lower and lower wages, forcing third world countries to lift laws offering any protection to labor or the environment in an attempt to entice employers, wages in many countries do not meet subsistence levels for the laborer.

This extreme poverty also leads destitute parents who are unable to feed their own children to sell them to rich masters force them to work as servants and often sexually exploit them. The sale of children is most prevalent in Haiti, where 200,000 children work as restavecs, or domestic laborers. Destitution is often even greater in countries such as Haiti that have, in addition to being plundered by corporations, have also been ravaged by American military operations.

Internal wars also wreck devastation, and there are many cases of people who become mercenaries in such wars in order to earn subsistence that they could not otherwise obtain, particularly in African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast, and later find they are unable to leave the army for fear of retribution. These internal conflicts led to a vicious cycle in which thousands of young men are forced to become mercenaries because of poverty. These mercenaries perpetuate the war, which inflicts even more destruction upon the community and increases poverty.

Even in the increasingly rare cases in which forced laborers are forced into their position not by economic necessity but social custom, capitalist globalization is at least in part responsible for its perpetuation. This slavery is often allowed to exist because of lax labor laws that are instituted because of the need to compete in the ‘race to the bottom’ which prevent governments from taking action to end the slavery.

It is clear that the struggle against capitalist globalization and the struggle to eradicate slavery are one in the same. To combat slavery, stronger laws to protect laborers must be implemented both by national governments, international financial institutions, and international diplomatic institutions. As long as there is abject poverty in the world and as long as capitalism continues to promote it, there will be people who have to live with the miserable reality of slavery.

For more on modern slavery, visit http://www.ilo.org/  and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/world/slavery/default.stm

David Bake can be contacted at [email protected]  . Visit his weblog at www.humanitarian.tk

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