A year on from ‘12 Years a Slave’, slavery continues

Opinion: Thai authorities do a U-turn over forced labour

Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. ‘The film invited audiences to feel outrage against an aspect of history, then to savour the warmth that comes from the triumph of decency in the final reel. No prompt to face the fact of slavery remaining a reality for tens of millions today.’

Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. ‘The film invited audiences to feel outrage against an aspect of history, then to savour the warmth that comes from the triumph of decency in the final reel. No prompt to face the fact of slavery remaining a reality for tens of millions today.’

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 12:01

Three days ago, the government of Thailand announced it would, after all, accept a protocol agreed at the annual meeting of the International Labour Organisation and ratified by the United Nations requiring states to identify and release slaves, ensure they had access to compensation, and bring the perpetrators to book. Last week, Thailand had been the only country to reject the protocol. A number of others abstained, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, Qatar, Kuwait and Yemen. The dependence of Qatar on slave labour has been widely publicised – not because of a surge of concern about the dreadful conditions in which captive labourers work, but because of Qatar’s possible hosting of the World Cup finals in 2022.There has been no similar focus on the other Middle Eastern countries involved.

Occasionally, a flurry of publicity arises from particularly egregious cases. The beheading of a Sri Lankan woman in Saudi Arabia three years ago briefly sparked international outrage. Rizana Nafeek had been convicted of murdering her employers’ child – which she vehemently denied to the last moments of life, on her knees in a public arena awaiting the swish of the sword. She had been 17 at the time of the infant’s death.

Rizana had been recruited as a housemaid and promised good money by Sri Lankan standards so she could help her family. Upon arrival in the kingdom, her passport was taken. She was effectively held prisoner and either not paid or paid a pittance for round-the-clock work.

Her story, briefly front page news in some western papers, soon faded from view. Relations between democratic governments and the oil-rich dictatorship appear not to have been damaged.

Mauritanian human rights campaigner Boubakar Messaoud is widely quoted by anti-slavery organisations saying that in his country people are born and bred as slaves: “A Mauritanian slave, whose parents and grandparents before him were slaves… has been brought up as a domesticated animal. It’s like having sheep or goats.”

His depiction might have fitted neatly enough into the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave which exposed the cruelty of slavery in the US in the 19th century. The film invited audiences to feel outrage against an aspect of history, then to savour the warmth that comes from the triumph of decency in the final reel. No prompt to face the fact of slavery remaining a reality for tens of millions today.

The fact that the primary religion in the main slave states is Islam has little to do with the spread of the phenomenon. The fundamental texts of all Abrahamic religions quote God explicitly endorsing slavery, including sex slavery, just as they endorse the slaughter of unbelievers. Whether the endorsement is picked up and put into practice depends on economic conditions, on whether ruling elites reckon they can better expand their prosperity through free or captive labour.

The main reason the Thai authorities U-turned this week lay in a realisation that the business class, and thereby the economy as a whole, might be hit hard if they didn’t change course. They had been taken aback by reaction to a formidable piece in the Guardian by a team under Maggie O’Kane and Mary Carson, accompanied by an eloquent online film by Chris Kelly. The piece told of large numbers of men, many from Burma, Cambodia and Nepal, forced under threat of violence or death to work for no pay on fishing boats off the Thai coast, a crucial link in the production of prawns for supermarkets in developed countries, including Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco; the notion that “we” play no part in the slave trade these days is wide of the mark. Escaped slaves told of 20-hour shifts, beatings, torture and killings. Many had been at sea for years, sold or transferred from one boat to another. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them, as many as 20 at a time.

The Bangkok government’s first response was to denounce the article as “a plagiarised, politically motivated, carefully timed attack . . . on the new military-led government” (which had overturned the civilian government last month).

Falling index

Within days, however, the Thai index began falling as seafood producers came under pressure. Shares in main players including Charoen Pokphand Foods and Seafresh Industry began slipping. Thai Union Frozen Products has denied any involvement in slavery/forced labour, but took a hit. The biggest Thai company involved, CP Foods, pledged to eliminate slave product from its supply chain. At which point the military government changed its tune. The power of the press hasn’t dissipated altogether. Thailand is but one example.

There are other countries where slavery is still regarded as acceptable.

A case for boycott?

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