About 45.8 million people in 167 countries live in some form of modern slavery according to the latest estimate of the Walk Free Foundation. Anything from children bricklayers, to men compelled to toil in fishing boats, to women forced into prostitution are included in this eye-popping number. Slavery is forbidden all over the world. Mauritania was the last country to abolish the practice (1981) and put teeth into the law (2007). Yet not a single region of our globe has been spared from this scourge. Slavery continues to thrive because its beneficiaries resort to debts or prison sentences or some other subterfuge to compel men, women, and children to work, under the threat of violence, and offering absurdly low or no compensation.
We are often told that this brand of slavery is new. That it traces its roots only to the end of World War II or even the economic liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s. Some commentators point to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the origin of the sex trade involving Eastern European women or the liberal reforms of the last thirty years as the main driver for children in Third World countries toiling in sweatshops to make products for the developed world. It is true that all of these developments have accelerated this type of slavery. And it is also true that these forms of labor bondage are vastly different from the racially-based and government-sanctioned African slavery of the nineteenth century. Still, there is nothing new about this “new slavery.” Historians and other scholars are now actively excavating the deeper history of this type of enslavement meant to pose as legal work and render legal prohibitions against slavery meaningless.
In our own shores a case in point is that of Native Americans. Since the beginning of European colonization, the Spanish Crown—and later Mexico and the United States—forbade the taking of Indians as slaves. Yet Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans took hundreds of thousands of Indians from the time of Columbus until 1900 not as slaves but as “servants,” “indentures,” “peons,” “in deposit,” or as criminals serving out their sentences. The fact that this other slavery had to be carried out clandestinely made it especially insidious.
Moreover, because this other slavery had no legal basis, ending it proved nearly impossible. The Spanish crown prohibited Native bondage under all circumstances in 1542. Yet the traffic continued. In the early nineteenth century Mexico proscribed all forms of bondage and extended citizenship to all Indians. Yet Indian slavery persisted. After the Civil War, the United States Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting both “slavery” and “involuntary servitude.” Although the inclusion of the latter term opened the possibility of liberation of all Indians held in bondage in various parts of the United States, in the end the Supreme Court opted for a narrow interpretation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments that applied primarily to African Americans and generally excluded Native Americans. This other slavery continued to thrive in the United States through the end of the nineteenth century and in some remote areas well into the twentieth century and constitutes a direct antecedent of the type of slavery that exists today.
There is much that we can learn from the deeper history of this other slavery. For one thing, formal prohibitions are not enough. Since those who benefit from forced labor will always find ways to get around the law, it is necessary to deploy a flexible regulatory system that matches the adaptability of this other slavery. The Native American experience shows that former masters, in collusion with government officials, are prone to resort to slight changes in terminology or use loopholes in the law to retain control of their laborers. From the experience of Native Americans we also learn that traffickers have always been quite adept at shifting geographically and targeting new groups. Thus the efforts at liberating one Native group sometimes resulted in the enslaving of a neighboring people. Similarly, when combating human trafficking and slavery today, a successful reduction of slavery in one group or region may well result in a comparable expansion in another. At the very least we should be mindful that this so-called “new” slavery has been with us for centuries and has shown incredible adaptability and resilience, and thus fighting it requires deep commitment, vigilance, and flexibility. Awareness of its long history is a good place to begin.