2 December is the United Nations’ International Day for the Abolition of Slavery
When we think of slavery, we often imagine African slaves working in the cotton fields of the American South or the Roman slaves in Jesus’ day. For us, slaves are foreign. They belong to different nations and to different times from our own. That kind of slavery still exists in our own day in many parts of the world, but our societies also have their own forms of slavery. The International Day for the Abolition of Slavery invites us to reflect more broadly on what slavery means and on the different forms it takes in our own society and throughout our world.
In much of history, slavery was taken for granted. For Jesus and St Paul, it was a fact of life. Even such societies as Athens and Rome, which we regard as the most civilised and as exercising the greatest influence on our own culture, built their rich intellectual and cultural life on the back of slaves. When they invaded other cities, they enslaved their citizens and put them to work for themselves. The attraction of slavery was that it provided cheap labour and people who could be forced to do dangerous or demeaning work. This allowed their captors to live lives of wealth and leisure and to give attention to writing, art, music and public life. Slaves had few rights, they could be forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions, were liable to savage punishment if they escaped or refused to work and did not need to be paid. They were seen as an inferior class of human beings.
Although in our society slaves are not a visually recognisable, separate class of people, many people and firms still look for cheap labour and for people who will do dangerous and unattractive work. They seek ways to force vulnerable people to work without the income and the protections that others have.
One of the most vulnerable groups in our own society is migrant workers. Many employers, householders and brothel owners want occasional workers to whom they can pay low wages and avoid regulations about sick leave, minimum wages and safety. To find workers, they may rely on overseas agents who attract workers to work abroad by lavish promises about the nature of their work and the support it will provide for their families. Unscrupulous employers may then confiscate their passports, make them work in remote areas or confined to brothels, or charge them exorbitantly for minimal food and shelter. When their employees are no longer useful, they will sometimes report them to the Immigration Department to be detained and sent back to their home country.
These modern forms of slavery are created by the greed for cheap labourers who will work long hours for little pay and by the lack of government regulations and enforcement that prevent underpayment of wages and offer protection for workers from exploitation. Strong industrial laws that protect workers and ensure that big corporations pay a proper price to farmers for the food that they produce are necessary to prevent these modern forms of slavery.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.