Acton Commentary

Ending the ‘Slavocracy’


Slavery is alive and well today. Recent estimates put the number of people in bondage at 27 million worldwide. The abolition of modern day slavery is an urgent matter; in the words of Pope John Paul II, slavery “constitutes a shocking offence against human dignity and a grave violation of fundamental human rights.”

The Times of India reports that in Bihar state alone there are around 8,300 bonded laborers, including children. Bonded labor is the most widespread form of slavery in India. And because of that, the economic dimension should not be overlooked as part of a long-term strategy for permanently eradicating the demand for slaves.

A person becomes a bonded laborer often as a means of paying off a loan. Kevin Bales, in Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy , explains that debts arise from two main sources: (1) an urgent crisis such as illness, injury, or famine, or (2) the need to pay for death rites or marriage celebrations. To pay for such expenses in a climate of abject poverty, the poor resort to borrowing money from local moneylenders or landowners who demand the only collateral available: the labor of their families or children.

Human Rights Watch tells of a boy, Ramesh, 13, who was sold into bondage in 1993 for about 2,500 India rupees (US $55), so that his parents could get an advance to purchase a house. Until recently, he worked six and a half days a week, from 7:00 am to 9:00 pm, rolling, by hand, about 1500 cigarettes. If he rolled fewer than his quota, he was beaten.

In 2001, International Justice Mission (IJM), an advocacy group that brings oppressors such as Ramesh’s employer to justice and mobilizes intervention for victims, rescued a boy named Sridhar. Sridhar had been sold into slavery at the age of ten, for about 1,500 Indian rupees (US $33), so that his family could buy necessities to live. The moneylender sent Sridhar to make cigarettes under horrible conditions to pay back the debt. In many cases, however, the debts can never be repaid, because workers are intentionally underpaid, charged extra fees, or indebted further by their borrowing more money to purchase medical supplies or meet other needs.

In January of 2002, IJM discovered a rock quarry in India where entire families were slave laborers. These families, including children, were regularly forced to break rocks with hammers for ten to twelve hours per day in order to pay back small loans and other debts. This type of slavery, nearly 1,500 years old in India, still exists even though debt bondage was outlawed there officially in 1976 under the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act.

Gary Haugen, the president of IJM who was recently profiled in Forbes Magazine , has outlined his group’s unique tactic - using the rule of law to remove the economic incentives for slavery. IJM raises the slave owner’s cost of doing business by working with local authorities to gather evidence of abuse and bring that evidence to prosecutors. The conviction of a few perpetrators, who end up facing incarceration or harsh fines, sends a strong message that this practice is not worth the trouble, legally or economically.

The economic environment of India is also relevant to the cause of eliminating slavery. Confronted with few options, many freed families find themselves back in slavery, trying to pay off new debts. Part of the solution, then, is increasing the number of adequately paying jobs, making desperate borrowing unnecessary. This will come as a culture of entrepreneurship expands. In addition to relief work and aid, India needs an entrepreneurial revolution.

Bales describes the twofold threat that the growing middle class — thanks in part to the prosperity fostered by American businesses’ moving to India — poses to the current “slavocracy.” First, India’s middle class workers, the beneficiaries of the country’s new industries and services, are buying up farmland as it becomes available. India’s middle-class landowners are more likely to use modern farming techniques to increase production and lower labor costs, reducing the demand for slaves. The more Indian agriculture is mechanized, the less profit the landlords will make from the use of an outmoded system like bonded labor. The dream of peasant farmers everywhere in India is a mechanized future. A farm with slaves simply cannot compete with a mechanized one.

Second, the Indian middle class is gaining political power that threatens the corrupt relationship between the government and slave-wielding landowners. The middle class has already initiated a crackdown on official corruption and promoted increased voter registration among lower castes and tribal groups. The middle class is simply pulling the rug out from under slave oppressors and corrupt government officials by owning more property and politically empowering those at the bottom of India’s caste system.

While organizations such as IJM do the initial work of providing liberty for slaves, the next step is to provide an economic environment that discourages a return to the practice of slavery. This naturally includes a strong rule of law, economic development, and a shifting of power from large landowners to average Indian citizens.

As such, the news that many U.S. firms are moving to India carries with it the promise of an unintended consequence: contributing to the ending of slavery in that country. The continued prosecution of slave masters and the proliferation of business allow more families to take care of their own needs and provide a context for political equality—both important factors in the production of lasting freedom.