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Slavery beyond the sex trade

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 28 Nov 2012 10:00 AM
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A 19-year-old trafficking victim from central Myanmar who, two years ago, managed to escape two brokers who promised a job in a nearby town but instead took her to a town in the far north and tried to get her to become a sex worker. October 12, 2012. REUTERS/Minzayar
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LONDON (TrustLaw) - In Haiti, it's the little girl who is kept home from school and forced to clean her sister's house or else be beaten with electric cables.

Thousands of miles away in India, it's the shy, young woman left at the mercy of an agent who finds her a job as a maid but takes her earnings. In Bahrain, it's the Filippino domestic worker who, abused and exploited by her employer, cannot leave.   

Millions of people around the world today are trapped in slavery, like seven-year-old Wisline was in Haiti.

"My sister came to get me at my mother's house, saying she would put me in school but when I got to her house, she started making me work and cook for her and she began mistreating me," says Wisline, who now lives in a refuge with other former child slaves outside of Port-au-Prince.

Exactly how many people are enslaved is impossible to know.

Estimates range from 27 million, cited by advocacy group, Free the Slaves, to the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) figure of 20.9 million people - of which about 2.2 million are forced labourers of the state, for example, working in prisons.

While women and girls account for the greater share of 21st century slaves, coverage of their plight has been dominated by stories of sex trafficking and lurid tales of being forced to sell their bodies in brothels and on street corners.

Yet data from the ILO suggests that far more women and girls are victims of domestic servitude and other types of forced labour than they are of the sex trade.

Of the estimated 11.4 million women and girls in forced labour globally, around 4.4 million are subjected to sexual exploitation in foreign countries, according to the ILO.

That leaves some 7 million trapped in labour exploitation. Unlike sex trafficking, most of it is taking place in the victims' own countries.   

DESPERATE FOR WORK

Although the ILO gives no breakdown, campaigners say forced labour involving women and girls includes everything from being enslaved in private homes as servants, cooks and nannies to working in factories, farms and textile mills, and even, according to some reports, nail bars and cannabis farms.

Another notable trend has been the trafficking of women into forced marriages in regions where men outnumber women. For example, 70 percent of the trafficking cases in Myanmar in 2011 involved local women being lured into neighbouring China - often on the pretext of finding work - only to be forced to marry Chinese men.

"Today you don't have to kidnap people, use violence to pull people into slavery," said Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves. "There are so many people who are desperate for work ... that you just have to offer people a job."

Despite the scale of the problem and the suffering it causes, eradicating modern day slavery has proved elusive.

One of the hurdles is identifying victims.

Those in domestic servitude - whether migrant domestic workers or not - are less visible than in sex trafficking, which is one of the reasons why the sector has been overlooked, activists say.

So-called domestic slaves tend to be isolated and hidden from view, with abuses usually occurring behind closed doors.   

DOMESTIC SERVITUDE

In the privacy of their own homes, employers are often able to get away with violations that amount to enslavement, activists say. It can start with them confiscating their maids' passports and identity documents or not paying them - and escalate to not feeding them, insulting them verbally and beating them.

"There are so many cases of adults and children being fed scraps, having to sleep under the dining room table, being at the beck and call of their bosses," said Anti-Slavery International spokeswoman Elizabeth Muggleton.

"With child domestic workers, they might just look like another member of the family. It takes a slightly keen eye to recognise that there's only one child who's carrying the shopping bags," she said, referring to "Cinderella-style" cases of children forced to look after other children, and being badly mistreated.

In recognition of their particular vulnerability, governments adopted ILO's Convention 189 to protect domestic workers last year in a boost for millions of exploited women. To date, three countries - Uruguay, the Philippines and Mauritius - have ratifed the treaty.

Yet at the same time, many countries like Britain and the majority of Arab states have tied work permits for domestic workers to a single employer.

It's a policy that exposes workers to the risk of forced labour because it leaves them with few alternatives but to stick it out with a potentially abusive employer, experts say.

The fight against slavery has been championed recently by the United States with what advocates say was a landmark speech by President Barack Obama in September.

Calling it "one of the great human rights causes of our time", Obama announced a string of initiatives to combat the problem including an executive order designed to strengthen U.S. efforts to stamp out slavery from federal contracts.

While giving credit to countries such as Brazil and the United States for taking the lead in addressing forced labour, Beate Andrees, head of ILO's special action programme to combat forced labour, said: "We don't have the critical masses yet."

"There are many leaders and governments who can deny (it) and don't want to address it, so we are still a long way from eliminating the problem," Andrees told TrustLaw in a telephone interview from Geneva.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO END SLAVERY?

Besides political will, tackling corruption, pushing governments to enforce their anti-slavery laws and companies to scrutinise their supply chains would go a long way to ending slavery, experts say.

So would boosting the number of convictions for trafficking.

"The very numbers of identified victims or convicted traffickers remain very, very low," Silke Albert, a crime prevention expert for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told TrustLaw.

Last year, 946 trafficking cases were referred to the British authorities, yet only eight human trafficking convictions were secured in England and Wales.

"Trafficking is a very complex crime," UNODC's Albert said.  "Many victims are for example in illegal situations. They have been brought in illegally or they have not been employed legally ... so they fear the police instead of turning to the police, and of course, they are badly controlled by their traffickers."

Women are both the victims of trafficking and the perpetrators, according to a UNODC report in 2009, which said female offenders had a more prominent role in present day slavery than in most other crimes.

It is unclear whether that is because women have been coerced into recruiting other women or because they can more easily approach and gain the trust of their victims.

What's certain is that women and girls will continue to suffer - and slavery will continue to thrive if its root causes are left unaddressed.

"The root causes of slavery are in social injustice, in discrimination, in poverty," Gulnara Shahinian, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, told TrustLaw. "Where all of these things are existing in a country, slavery will exist."

This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation special report on trafficking and modern day slavery.

Trafficking and modern day slavery will be high on the agenda at the Trust Women conference, Dec 4-5

   

    

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