Beatrice Fernando’s life in Lebanon had become so unbearable that out of desperation she leapt for freedom from a fourth-story Beirut balcony. The 23-year-old Sri Lankan woman’s story is a study in the sad realities of modern-day slavery.
Estranged from her husband back in Sri Lanka, Fernando had moved in with her parents. But she saw no prospects for income or education in her native country. In an attempt to escape her family’s crushing poverty, she decided to go to Lebanon against parental advice. Leaving her 3-year-old son for two years would be traumatic, but this was for his future even more than for hers.
In Beirut, the employment agency took her passport, and with it her hopes and dreams. They placed her in a job as a maid for a wealthy Lebanese woman, and for the next several months she was locked securely in the woman’s apartment, cut off from the outside world. Her employment included continuous insults, humiliation, beatings, day-and-night labor, and near starvation, all without the pay she had been promised.
Her workdays started at 5 a.m. and ended after midnight. Her meals, often only one per day, consisted of the half-eaten leftovers from the children’s plates or whatever she could find by rummaging through the garbage when the lady of the house wasn’t home. Sometimes the best she could hope for were the scraps left on fish bones.
As the weeks turned into months, she grew progressively weaker and needed more time to complete her daily tasks. She spent her sleepless nights dreaming of food.
The time had come to do something about her worsening situation. It was 5 o’clock in the morning. She prayed that if she should die, God would forgive her, and with that thought, she released her hold on the cold iron railing of the balcony.
But she didn’t die. Fernando awoke in a Beirut hospital to face her newest challenge: months of recovery from a broken back, and years of excruciating pain. Her eventual return to her parents’ home in Sri Lanka was a mixture of humiliation on the one hand, and joy that she had survived to see her son again on the other.
Beatrice Fernando now lives in the United States. She is one of the relatively few who have been able to escape enslavement through human trafficking to be returned to free society. The vast majority are not so fortunate.
Asked whether she holds a grudge against those who put her into slavery, Fernando told Vision, “I don't hate them. I use my experience to help keep women like myself from falling into the hands of others like them.”
Defining the Problem
When the average person hears the term slavery, he or she probably thinks of an era long gone. The shocking truth is that the slave trade is alive and well. An estimated 27 million struggle in slavelike conditions. As UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman said at an August 2006 human rights conference in Beijing, “no nation or region is immune.” The problem can be national or international in nature and is fundamentally the same as dealing in drugs or firearms. The only difference is the commodity.
“The dark side of globalization allows multinational criminal syndicates to broaden their range of operations from drug and arms trafficking to money laundering and trafficking in human beings.”
The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime defines the slave trade, or human trafficking, as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons” by means including threat, use of force or coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, etc., “for the purpose of exploitation . . . [such as] prostitution . . . or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
The convention goes on to say that the consent of the victim of trafficking is irrelevant, and that the recruitment, transportation, harboring or receipt of a child under 18 for the purpose of exploitation is a violation even if it does not involve coercion.
Clear definitions are essential if legislators, law enforcement officials and border guards are to distinguish between the victims and the criminals and properly focus on the problems. The reality is that many forms of human trafficking have been seen as nothing more than individuals moving away from home to find work elsewhere, often in another country. Law enforcement frequently views those who are trafficked across national borders as illegal immigrants and, as such, as criminals instead of victims. And women who have been forced into prostitution are often thought to be in that profession by choice.
The Many Faces of Slavery
Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833–34 and in the United States in 1865. Today no national government officially allows the ownership of another human being. The practice is nonetheless widespread throughout most of the world.
The source of potential slaves and the conditions that produce slavery have grown substantially since World War II. World population has increased significantly, and those nations with the greatest growth are the very ones where slavery is flourishing. Further, traffickers often target and exploit underage victims because of their mental and social immaturity.
Kevin Bales, president of Washington, D.C.–based Free the Slaves, outlines three key factors that have helped create today’s slave trade. He writes, “The first is the population explosion that flooded the world’s labor markets with millions of poor and vulnerable people. The second is the revolution of economic globalization and modernized agriculture, which has dispossessed poor farmers and made them vulnerable to enslavement. . . . The third factor is the chaos of greed, violence, and corruption created by this economic change in many developing countries, change that is destroying the social rules and traditional bonds of responsibility that might have protected potential slaves.” He adds, “Today, all over the world, the conditions are right for slavery” (Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy).
The International Labour Organization addresses slavery, emphasizing that "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" should be termed "forced or compulsory labour."
Certain types of employment seem to lend themselves to this kind of abuse. Contract workers, domestic servants, garment and agricultural workers, and immigrant laborers, to name just a few, in some cases live and work under conditions that amount to slavery or forced labor.
The most widespread example is debt bondage, which affects as many as 20 million people worldwide, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights. Desperately poor and vulnerable individuals and families fall prey to unscrupulous employers, who lend them money for food, medicine, a wedding, a funeral—on terms and conditions either unspecified or not honored. This leaves those who are already unable to meet the essential needs of their families at the mercy of creditors.
A vicious cycle sets in, with the greedy employer typically raising the interest rates on the loan or simply adding interest, as well as charging for such expenses as food, medicine, transportation, and even the tools necessary to perform the work—usually at grossly inflated rates. Employees are often forced to work very long hours, seven days a week, with sick time added to their debt.
“According to U.S. Government estimates, 800,000 to 900,000 victims are trafficked globally each year and 17,500 to 18,500 are trafficked into the United States. Women and children comprise the largest group of victims.”
Bales relates a story of Thai women brought to North America for factory work: “In late 1995 sixty-eight Thais, most of them women, were rescued from a sweatshop garment factory in Los Angeles. Most of these women were in fact garment workers in Thailand and had paid agents for the possibility of good jobs in the United States. When they arrived their passports were taken away and they were placed in debt bondage. Forced to live within a locked factory compound, they worked sixteen-hour days under armed guard. Told they must repay debts of around $5,000, they were paid just over $10 per day from which the cost of their food was deducted.”
Simple arithmetic reveals how such workers may never be able to pay off the debt. Tragically, the “tab” is often passed on to children after the parents die, and in some cultures passed down for generations.
Children in Bondage
An even more tragic side of forced labor is the exploitation of children. Victims under 18 comprise a sizable percentage of all forced laborers. Often they are sought for employment precisely because their age makes them more vulnerable, more obedient, and less aware of their rights. Some as young as seven years old are used as domestic servants or in agriculture, quarries, brick kilns and mines, for little or no pay. In most cases they are deprived of education and of opportunities to play and live the normal life of the growing child.
They often suffer a wide range of associated abuses such as long hours of hard work, little rest, and physical, verbal and even sexual violence. Such groups as Anti-Slavery International (in the United Kingdom) and Free the Slaves (their sister organization in the United States) report that in extreme cases children may work 14 or more hours a day, seven days a week, enduring beatings and the denial of medical treatment. In domestic service they may have to sleep on the kitchen floor and eat only the remains of family meals.
Kidnapping of young boys and girls for service in armed conflicts is of great concern. Recruited forcibly or otherwise, sometimes under religious pretext, they are forced to kill or be killed. In battle, young fighters may be sent ahead of well-armed men as a method of drawing enemy fire, or ruthlessly positioned to clear the way of booby traps and mines with their own bodies.
For years sexual exploitation has been at the center of discussions about human trafficking. Because it lends itself to sensationalism, it is more highly visible in the media.
Forced prostitution of kidnapped or deceived women is really another form of forced labor, but it can have a more devastating effect than other types. Often all the factors that exist in a forced labor situation are present in prostitution as well, with the added reality that a young girl’s future—her marriage, her family and her happiness—is even more bleak.
Many of these girls are from rural areas of developing countries, where unemployment is higher and access to education is lower. They are promised legitimate work with good pay, for example as domestic workers or waitresses. But once in the destination country, their documents, identities and money are seized, their passports sometimes showing up on the black market.
Traffickers and employers obtain the cooperation of sex workers through fear and intimidation. They may resort to entrapment, violent beatings and death threats (either against the victim or the family back home), forced drug use, involuntary abortions, confinement and even starvation. The objective is to traumatize the individuals to make them easier to control. Many such victims simply accept their situation and seek to please their captors just to survive. Others endure their situation, holding out hope for some kind of change. Some few see suicide as the only way out of their misery.
When their usefulness has been exhausted because of age or disease (AIDS is common), they are disposed of—thrown out on the street where they may be considered illegal immigrants or part of the criminal element. Some employers have been known to murder them. If they can return home, they are often sick or pregnant. Socially shamed, they face being stigmatized and ostracized by the community. Few if any men would marry them, and without employment or education, they have little hope in life.
Law enforcement personnel are shocked by the scale of the trafficking of young women around the world and appalled by the callousness and brutality of their treatment.
The Economics of Slavery
The economic reasons for the rapid growth of trafficking and slavery are multifaceted and complex. One of the most basic, of course, is profitability.
“It is not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money.”
The growth of trafficking and slavery has been stimulated in part by lower labor costs in Third World nations: as large corporations in prosperous nations move factories out of costly labor markets, they naturally relocate where there is an abundance of cheap labor.
There is profit for everybody in the trafficking chain—except, of course, for the slave. Everyone makes money at every step: the one abducting or recruiting the slave, those providing transportation, the one supplying false documents, the police and border guards who take bribes, the distributor who makes the sale, and the client. In many nations the web of bribery and corruption includes the legal system, the police, organized criminal groups and businesses. As a further enticement, officials may be offered free use of the brothels.
The financial advantages of using slave labor are great: there’s no need for insurance, retirement, sick pay, bonuses or even salary. When the workers become unprofitable for any reason, they can be thrown away like any other consumable product. It’s an ideal situation for the employer who is not bothered by such details as ethical or moral issues, nor by compassion or regard for decency.
The Heart of the Problem
Humans have always exploited other humans. Human nature is part of the problem, but the way people view their responsibility to any and all other human beings is a spiritual matter.
In 1776 slavery was an accepted commercial enterprise, legal in all 13 American colonies. Yet the Declaration of Independence of the same year eloquently set out the foundational concepts of human freedom:“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was in large part a response to what its creators saw as oppression by the British government.
Over the next few years, one by one a number of states outlawed slavery, and in 1807 Congress voted to abolish the international slave trade. But legislation did not bring the immediate end of the practice, and slavery continued to varying degrees in many states—northern and southern. Thus, when Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, he reminded his audience that the nation had been “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address drew on many biblical principles. One of them is a simple but viable concept that, if applied, would resolve the worldwide problem of slavery and human trafficking. It spells out how humans should relate to each other and is often referred to as the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you want to be treated” (see Matthew 7:12).
The Bible sets out another concept, which can be referred to as “the law of repayment.” It is expressed in the statements “We reap what we sow” (see Galatians 6:7) and “Wrongdoers will be repaid for the wrong things they do, because God judges everyone by the same standard” (Colossians 3:25, Today’s English Version).
Would those indulging in slavery want the biblical axiom expressed in Luke 6:38 applied to their personal lives? It reads that as you give to others, “it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. . . . For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” Would those who abuse 10-year-old girls want their own daughters to experience such treatment? More pointedly, would they like to live under those conditions themselves?
The Bible also contains two relevant prophecies. The first describes the kind of characteristics displayed by those who enslave others: “Know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, . . . unholy, unloving [or “without natural affection” (King James Version)], . . . without self-control, brutal, despisers of good” (2 Timothy 3:1–3). This aptly describes the heartless approach of those who participate in the buying, selling and abusing of their fellow human beings. A second prophecy is found in Revelation 18:13, where the trade of some merchants is said to include “bodies and souls of men”—their lives and their minds.
There is no way that words or statistics can adequately describe the hopeless misery and despair that so many must face every day, trapped as they are in the worst types of slavery. The callousness of the traders and those who buy and misuse these hapless millions, and the disregard for their basic human rights, is truly appalling.
Compassionate, decent-minded people everywhere must stand behind those organized efforts to defeat this type of evil, but it will take more than human endeavor and government legislation to change the hearts of those who selfishly inflict so much suffering on the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.