Slavery in the Modern World

From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent: When many of us think of slavery our minds often focus on African Americans toiling on cotton fields in the south of the United States; or perhaps we envision slaves in the ancient world, usually building monuments dedicated to the glory of the Pharaoh. In fact slavery still exists and flourishes around the world today. In 2005 the International Labour Organisation estimated that there at least 12.3 million people in forced labour (slaves) globally. Of these, 1.4 million are in forced commercial sexual exploitation. Intriguingly, on Oct 26, 2011 the animal rights group People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued SeaWorld on behalf of five performing orcas in California and Florida which PETA believes are being kept in slavery contrary to their rights under the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. More on this later.

Before taking a closer look at modern day slavery is worthwhile to look briefly at its history. The first written record of slavery can be found in The Code of Hammurabi (c.a. 1760 BC). Notably it is referred to as a commonplace institution, not an exception. More evidence of slavery in the ancient world can be found in the Bible. And of course, no one would be surprised to know that it permeated virtually all of the ancient cultures of the world from the Sumerians to the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas. In more recent times, an estimated 645000 African slaves were brought to what is now the United States between the 16th and 19th Centuries. The United States Census of 1860 recorded the existence of 3,950,528 slaves. Throughout human history slavery has been regarded as acceptable in almost all societies.

As we have seen slavery is still widespread today. A 2005 report released by the International Labour Organisation estimated that global profits made from forced labour is U.S $44.3 billion every year. These slaves are held against their will, sometimes from birth and are exploited in a number of ways: as slaves, domestic servants, ‘sweatshop’ workers, and in forced marriages. There are now more people living as slaves than at any time in human history, although expressed as a proportion of the total worldwide population it is not as high as in the past.

It is not surprising that we tend to think of slavery as an institution that only existed in the past. The reason being the modern tendency to think that slavery was only considered acceptable because the societies that engaged in it were far less enlightened than ourselves. This belief is reinforced by the anti-slavery undertones ascribed to Lincoln’s revered Gettysburg Address. That speech’s association with anti slavery sentiment was strengthened in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech, itself delivered on the steps of the Lincoln memorial, in which he refers to the Emancipation Proclamation as being “..a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves..”. In reality, however, slavery in many cases exists, and has always existed because of its economic benefits. How much cheaper can something be made by someone who is treated poorly, and at best paid a pittance? And how much easier and more comfortable can our life be when someone else is catering to our every whim or desire? As mentioned above we can confidently estimate that slavery today is worth over $44 billion dollars a year. This economic benefit should alone be enough to prevent anyone from being surprised that slavery still exists in spite of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This Declaration states: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.

Most of us believe that only the most vile and despicable of the human race would engage in, or support, slavery in any form. However, we would all do well to ask ourselves whether we would prefer to pay 4 or 5 times the price for convenient products that we treasure and that provide so much benefit to us in our daily lives. The next time you watch a Pixar movie you might not want to think about an article published in the Guardian (27/8/11) which reported that toys made for the movie Cars are being manufactured in a Chinese factory employing children as young as 14, or the fact that employees routinely work an extra 120 hours every month to meet the demand of Western consumers. But before you start to worry yourself unnecessarily about the welfare of these Chinese slaves there is another group facing exploitation, and it might be much closer to home.

PETA has long fought against the use of animals for ‘entertainment’ purposes in circuses, as animal actors, ponies giving rides to children, and more. This fight for animal rights took on a whole new dimension on October 26, 2011 when PETA filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld on behalf of five orcas. This lawsuit is the first ever to seek to apply the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, to non-human animals. In a press release PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk is quoted as saying: “They (the orca plaintiffs) are denied freedom and everything else that is natural and important to them while kept in small concrete tanks and reduced to performing stupid tricks”. PETA’s actions provoked strong reactions from many people on both sides of the argument. One person who was angered by PETA’s actions was David Steinberg, a Professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. The Guardian (27/10/11) quoted the Professor as saying “ (by using the 13th Amendment as a basis for the lawsuit) PETA is demeaning the integrity and humanity of people who were owned as slaves. That is outrageous”.

While PETA is correct in stating that the 13th Amendment does not specifically refer to human slaves it is bordering on the ridiculous to suggest that this Amendment should apply equally to all animals. As Prof. Steinberg states it is disgraceful to draw such a parallel between the orcas mentioned in the lawsuit and the millions of humans being horrendously exploited worldwide at the present time. While PETA’s efforts to protect animals from cruelty are more often than not to be congratulated they have clearly overstepped the mark on this occasion and it can only be hoped that this was nothing more than a publicity stunt, much like their “I’d rather go naked than wear fur campaign”. By invoking the 13th Amendment PETA is in serious danger of undermining their credibility among the wider public, which makes their efforts to improve the treatment of animals all the more difficult.


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