Sunday, June 03, 2012

Slavery is as old a curse as humanity

The issue of slavery doesn’t seem like an important topic to be discussing the 21st century but it is still a real issue in many parts of the world, including Australia.  Attorney-General Nicola Roxon recognised the fact this week when she announced new laws to criminalise forced marriage, forced labour and organ trafficking.  Roxon said Australia wasn’t immune from slavery and people trafficking. The new bill tackles worker exploitation, ensures those who help to enslave or traffic can be charged as well as those who keep slaves and allows for reparations with up to 12 years in prison for forced labour charges.

The news comes a week after an Irish publication revealed the news slavery exists today in Ireland and is exported to Australia. The Cork Independent quoted from a new book called ‘Open Secrets: An Irish Perspective on Trafficking & Witchcraft' based on data from the Trafficking in Persons Report issued annually by the US Department of State. Book co-author David Lohan said the data was available for several years but the issue was under-reported. 

The report found that Irish and Filipino people on 457 visas were “fraudulently recruited to work temporarily in Australia, but subsequently are subjected to conditions of forced labour, including confiscation of travel documents, confinement and threats of serious harm." It quoted a $174,000 fine issued to a Perth construction company in 2008 for violations of the Workplace Relations Act for “the deliberate exploitation of Filipino and Irish migrant workers.” The workers were not entitled to move between employers and presented with undated work agreements while being denied the required documents outlining their rights.

At the time of the case, Australian Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans welcomed the fine and warned that the exploitation of workers would not be tolerated by his Government. The Cork Independent said slavery exists in Ireland today because of a demand. “Irish people are willing to use, abuse and exploit their fellow human beings for economic benefit or their own gratification,” it said.

But this is not just true of Ireland or Australia. Slavery is as old as organised human society. It was codified in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi 3800 years ago and accepted in the Old and New Testaments. Exodus 22:2-3 allows for a thief to be sold if they cannot redress their theft.  Ephesians 6:5 cautions servants “who are owned by someone must obey your owners”. The classical Greek definition of democracy glossed over slavery and it was a key component of the Roman Empire economy until it was gradually replaced by serfdom.

Slavery continued in many societies and gained a new lease of life in Western Europe with the opening up of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Atlantic triangular slave trade brought textiles, rum and manufactured goods from Europe to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas and sugar, tobacco and cotton from the Americas to Europe.  Merchants of Liverpool and Bristol combined with the big American cotton producers and the slave-trading kingdoms of western and central Africa to move 12 million Africans across the Atlantic in three hundred years. 

American-based British historian Simon Schama addressed the subject in his blood Rough Crossings:  Britain, Slaves and the American Revolution. The book tells the story of black Americans who sided with the British in the War of Independence because King George III embodied the idea of freedom for them better than George Washington.  The framers of the new American constitution had a bold plan for taxation and representation but behind the rhetoric of freedom, the reality of slavery was their Achilles heels. Tens of thousands of Black Africans looked to Britain to deliver them from the slavery.  When Boston lawyer James Otis called out the contradiction and said slavery diminished the idea of American freedom,  Founding Father John Adams could only “shudder at the consequences of such premises.”

The fact was the trade in humans kept the American cotton industry in profit and this was something the southern colonies were not to give away lightly. Slave rebellions in the sugar islands of the Caribbean created a terror the cotton economy was next and thousands of white Americans signed up for the revolt to protect their livelihood. 

But Britain was a dubious saviour for the blacks. Slavery was still legal in the British Empire and repeated attempts in parliament to ban it were always rejected on the economic grounds it would give bitter enemy France too much of an advantage in the Caribbean sugar trade. The notorious case of the slave ship the Zong where the captain threw 122 sick slaves overboard to get £30 a head compensation for their loss at sea spurred campaigners such as Granville Sharp (a founding father of Sierra Leone) and Thomas Clarkson to lobby for change. But even when revolutionary France rejected slavery (Napoleon re-established it in 1802), a suspicious British parliament would not immediately follow suit.

It wasn’t until 1807 the slave trade was made illegal in Britain and also in the US.  But the economic benefits of the institution of slavery continued in both countries until Britain made it illegal in the Empire in 1834. The internal contradictions of the US system were brilliantly exposed by 28-year-old runaway slave Frederick Douglass who wowed Britain when he toured in 1846. The articulate, witty, handsome and charismatic Douglass gave a dramatic account of cruelty in the plantations and lived constantly under the fear of re-capture. The book on his life was an immediate best seller.

Back home, many called Douglass anti-American but he defended his criticisms. “I have no love for America, What Country have I? The institutions of this country do not know me.” The contradictions tore the US apart leading to a reluctant Lincoln declaring war on the south in 1861.  The war claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and led to Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Declaration. When Lincoln was murdered, Douglass said Lincoln “shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, [but] it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.”

And while the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery after the South was defeated in 1865, the attitudes Douglass saw in Lincoln, lingered on in others. Slavery continued but went under a different name abetted by Jim Crow Laws.  Australia too enslaved its blacks by making them wards of the state.  While most of these schemes were wound back by the 1960s, slavery continues to be a worldwide issue.  In an article about South African slavery during the 2010 World Cup, Time said there were more slaves around today than ever. “Slaves are those forced to perform services for no pay beyond subsistence and for the profit of others who hold them through fraud and violence,” said Time. Slavery is likely to continue as long as humans have economic value.

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