When Britain and the United States recently passed laws against slavery, the news sounded like displaced items from another century. Last March, the British Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, increasing the maximum sentence from 14 years to life imprisonment. Home Secretary Theresa May said the new law warns those involved in this trade they will be locked up. To supervise the application of the law, she appointed the U.K.'s first independent anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland, a former head of the London Metropolitan Police human trafficking unit. Last month, the U.S. Congress closed a loophole that allowed Americans to import slave-made goods. It empowers customs officials and agents of the Department of Homeland Security to block incoming shipments of goods tied to forced labour.
Not many people know about these laws or the need for them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said a few years ago, "The majority of the people today believe that slavery is an evil of the past. Tragically, we know that is not the truth." Slavery in our time is no less appalling than it was in the 19th century, but it operates in secret, often in isolation.
In this era, people can fall into slavery by accident. Some, looking for a job, discover they are prisoners who can't get away. Some sign bonds that never run out -- the slave owners, backed by guards, insist repeatedly that the workers owe money. Some are pressed into slavery because they blundered into territory controlled by a slave owner's guards. There are millions of people in this situation, according to the scholars who make it their business to know. The kidnapping and enslavement the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant justifies by religion, while horrendous, are proportionately few.
Kevin Bales, in his moving and revealing book, Blood and Earth (Random House), describes how the system works. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a failed state, ungovernable after years of tribal war. It also contains rich minerals. That's the perfect recipe for slavery.
Bales reports on a mountain in the Walikale area of DRC. From above, it seems to be rapidly disappearing as antlike figures swarm over it and tunnel into it. Open pits dot the landscape, filling with rainwater. Closer observation shows that the men and women working in the tunnels are badly dressed, often without shoes, scratching minerals out of the ground with hand tools. They are digging coltan, a mineral essential in many electronic products, such as cellphones.
They look sick, which is explained by the wretched diet they are given, their lack of medical care and the demand that they work whether well or ill. Everywhere they go, armed guards watch, to make sure they don't stop working or try to escape. The guards treat the women as a collective harem, available on demand.
Using slave labour keeps costs low, which means the coltan is cheap when it reaches the corporate market. No taxes are paid, since the mine has no legal existence. No one needs to be publicly shamed by the slavery involved, since the product changes hands four or five times before it ends up in a cellphone. Any government attempting to apply the laws established by Britain and the U.S. will have to trace the tortuous supply chain before bringing a charge.
Not all slave owners work in failed states. Almost every kind of country faces ethical problems of sourcing. How can a customs inspector know that sneakers made in Vietnam have laces produced by subcontractors employing 12-year-old slaves? Workers in fisheries of the South China Sea are far from the eyes of authorities. So are Indian slaves who chisel granite out of the ground to make memorial stones for European cemeteries. A year of investigation by the Nestlé corporation has led to an admission of slavery in the Thailand seafood industry that gathers fish for its Fancy Feast catfood brand. Nestlé has announced a new era of self-disclosure in its supply chains.
Bales spends all his time studying slavery, making his way around the world to talk with ex-slaves and slave owners. He's a professor of contemporary slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull in England. William Wilberforce was the English politician who successfully promoted Britain's Slavery Abolition Act that made slavery illegal under Britain in 1833, three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation in the U.S. Bales is also among the authors of the Global Slavery Index, which tries to determine the number of slaves in the world -- 35.8 million at last count. The index also calculates by country, claiming that India has more slaves than any other state -- about 14.29 million.
The information Bales has gathered seems to argue that the human urge to exploit and degrade other humans is built into our system. Condemn it all we like, make it a crime all over the world, and some among us remain willing to benefit by it.