Modern Day Slavery

This painting might be from 1670, but the slavery it depicts continues today, albeit in a more subversive way. (Painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard of something called the slave mentality. When my mother talked about it, she meant the self-loathing attitudes black people learned during slavery and still perpetuate — now voluntarily — today.

But there are actually real, modern day slaves still in existence. They’re no longer physically in chains, but many are so tightly bound by desperate circumstances, their shackles may as well be real.

I read an article in Vice this week reporting that some 35.8 million people are enslaved around the planet, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index, published in November. Some 8,300 of these people are in the UK, domestic migrant workers who leave their countries in search of a better life only to end up victims of systemic abuse and human trafficking.

The article talked about one woman — Sheila, a fake name — who traveled to Dubai supposedly for a nanny job, only to have her passport taken away, her wages cut or withheld completely, and be literally locked away, forbidden to leave the family’s home — all that in addition to psychological abuse. The poor woman was on call almost 24 hours a day for four children, had no days off, not to mention the fact that her nanny duties expanded to include cooking and cleaning, and her employer shouted abuse at her at will. She said, “he shouted at me like an animal.”

The UK has proposed legislation to tackle these types of problems, but its Modern Slavery Bill has some serious holes in it that will likely prevent it from doing any good. The bill would strengthen sentences for traffickers and introduce provisions to seize their assets. Punishing perpetrators is great, but critics ask what about protecting the victims?

The Vice article, written by Sally Hayden, detailed how in April 2012, the rules for migrant domestic workers in the UK changed in an effort to stop unskilled workers from obtaining permanent access to the country. These workers were banned from changing employers, but this tied visa system basically made it easier for these modern day slave owners to abuse their “employees” with impunity.

Workers are often desperate to pay debts and to send money home to families who are also in desperate conditions — Sheila had two young children at home in the Philippines — they need to keep earning money, and that makes it easy for them to become trapped and less likely to approach authorities or report abuse.

Sheila managed to land in a better employment situation, though at press time her permanent residency status is still uncertain, but there are many who do not, and who suffer even worse.

I’m ashamed to say until recently, I hadn’t thought much about people like Sheila, but learning the vivid and saddening details of her existence sure does put things in perspective. I’ve had my hands full managing my response to Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and being a woman of color with all the gender, equity and dignity pain points that brings.

But the whole “be kind, you never know what journey everyone is going through” message I often see in Instagram posts means something when you become aware that mistreatment is a universal thing — one that often cares nothing for color or country.

I’m starting to think countries need chief diversity officers, too. I’m not sure when we adults go astray and begin to behave so badly toward one another. I suspect it happens quite early, and I know its learned behavior and that money is usually the primary motivator. I also know these problems can be complex to solve with deeply embedded, psychologically twisted roots that would definitely benefit from some CDO style policing and education.