The United States’ most respected and greatest President Abraham Lincoln - the man who freed his country from the curse of slavery has also pointed out that slavery is founded on the selfishness of the people’s nature and opposition to it is based on the people’s love of justice. Mahatma Gandhi has said that to end slavery, we need to overcome the physical and mental inertia of the people and broaden their intelligence and creative faculty. American abolitionist Harriet Tubman has made a more damning indictment of slavery. She says slavery is the next thing to hell.
Such and similar reflections come to mind as the United Nations on December 2 marks the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. In a statement the UN states that according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. Although modern slavery is not defined in law, it is used as an umbrella term covering practices such as forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking. Essentially, it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.
According to the UN, more than 150 million children are subject to child labour, accounting for almost one in ten children around the world. ILO has adopted a legally binding Protocol designed to strengthen global efforts to eliminate forced labour, and it entered into force on November 2016.
The UN says slavery has evolved and manifested itself in different ways throughout history. Today some traditional forms of slavery still persist in their earlier forms, while others have been transformed into new ones. The UN human rights bodies have documented the persistence of old forms of slavery that are embedded in traditional beliefs and customs. These forms of slavery are the result of long-standing discrimination against the most vulnerable groups in societies, such as those regarded as being of low caste, tribal minorities and indigenous peoples.
Referring to forced labour the UN says alongside traditional forms of forced labour, such as bonded labour and debt bondage there now exist more contemporary forms of forced labour, such as migrant workers, who have been trafficked for economic exploitation of every kind in the world economy: work in domestic servitude, the construction industry, the food and garment industry, the agricultural sector and in forced prostitution.
As for child labour the UN says globally, one in ten children works. The majority of the child labour that occurs today is for economic exploitation. That goes against the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes “the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”
Pope Francis has described human trafficking as a crime against humanity. He’s having a regular dialogue with other religious leaders to find base in which the victims could be helped and given freedom while the racketeers or scoundrels behind this crime are brought to justice and punished.
The UN says that according to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, trafficking in persons means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation includes prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. The consent of the person trafficked for exploitation is irrelevant and if the trafficked person is a child, it is a crime even without the use of force.
What is the situation in Sri Lanka regarding slavery? Officially there may be no slavery, but more than 1.5 million Sri Lankans, mainly women and girls who go to West Asian countries for household work are known to be treated like slaves and forced to work for about 18 hours a day. Many of them are reported to have been sexually assaulted and some even killed. It is a shame and a scandal that these Sri Lankan slaves are the biggest earners of foreign exchange for our country at a time when we are trapped in a mud hole of debt and corruption. Most of us are enslaved to ourselves. Often we are selfish and self-centered, seeking personal gain or glory. We need to be liberated from this self-centeredness to act effectively against any and all forms of slavery.