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Contemporary Slavery: Developing and Preying on Vulnerability

It is becoming increasingly known among those interested in social inequality and human rights that slavery is a significant part of our global economy. Existing in a variety of forms, slavery has been defined as “the complete control of a person for economic exploitation by violence or threat of violence” (Bales, 2000, p. 462). Differing from slavery in the 19th century, today’s slavery operates in clandestine fashion, hidden from the common consumer’s consciousness behind corrupted bureaucracy, law enforcement, and massive social distance. In this post, David Mayeda begins a 4-part series on modern day slavery, based on a recent trip he took to Thailand through Global Exchange and Not For Sale.

Thailand-Myanmar border

This past August, I took part in a 7-day reality tour through Global Exchange and Not For Sale, examining modern day slavery in Thailand. Our group was comprised of 16 individuals, primarily from the United States, with additional representation from Australia, Japan, and myself coming from Aotearoa New Zealand. We worked in a variety of industries (government, social work, retail, academia), but bottom line, we were all concerned citizens hoping to learn more about this social ill that continues to plague our society.

During our 3 days in Bangkok and 4 days in Chaing Rai and Chaing Mai, we met with activists, teachers, and social workers who were doing what they could with the limited resources they had to combat overwhelming, broad structural forces that maintain today’s slavery systems. In terms of broad sociological causes, contemporary slavery stems from extensive overpopulation, poverty, and corruption between business and law enforcement agencies. As explained in Kevin Bales’s book, Disposable People, those countries that have seen the fastest population growth since World War II (e.g., India, Bangladesh, Nepal) tend to have the most poverty-stricken vulnerable people, who are the most susceptible targets for exploitation.

Before delving into examples of slavery itself, it is critical to understand how the state can be complicit in creating mass vulnerability. In Thailand, those most vulnerable to becoming victims of slavery or worker exploitation in general come from two groups: (1) individuals from rural hill tribes in the northern part of the country, and (2) Burmese refugees seeking work in Thailand and/or fleeing from political instability in neighboring Myanmar.

As just mentioned, in parts of rural, northern Thailand, a number of hill tribes exist. They and their ancestors have lived in and around Thailand for generations and now number between 600,000 and 1 million. Historically, these tribes lived subsistence lifestyles, using predominantly slash and burn farming to sustain themselves. With modernity, however, the Thai government has prohibited this form of agricultural work, claiming it contributes to climate change, while further justifying the prohibition of slash and burn farming by designating the land around the hill tribes national parks.

The Thai government officially recognizes some of these tribes, yet even with national recognition and despite the hill tribe people’s history within the Thai borders, only about 60% are eligible for official citizenship. The remaining 40% are required to spend more money and go through more complex bureaucracy and time to secure citizenship. Without citizenship, the hill tribe population has “limited or no access to healthcare services, education, travel, employment or political representation” (Vital Voices Global Partnership, 2007, pg. 11). Given their lack of formal education and resources, the number of hill tribe persons who even apply for citizenship is extremely low.

Akha hill tribe persons, under our western gaze

The same conditions impact Burmese who enter Thailand to escape political instability and/or find work. Like the hill tribe Thai who are stateless, Burmese refugees are typically without any citizenship rights. They may receive moderate workers’ rights if they pay an expensive registration fee to the Thai State, but with these hefty registration costs, most Burmese enter Thailand illegally through the help of corrupt brokers. In 2009, it was estimated that there were about 743,000 Burmese workers in Thailand, only 14% of whom had paid for a proper work permit (Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation, 2011, pg. 6). These circumstances coupled with extensive poverty render Burmese migrants and the hill tribe Thai minority groups particularly vulnerable to falling into slavery.

Members of these two minority groups are especially susceptible to unethical, deceptive brokers who promise individuals conventional work for a fee of around $400 US. But upon arrival to their workplaces, the workers essentially find themselves ensnared in slavery (or if not complete slavery, highly turbulent working conditions). They are isolated in unfamiliar territory without a social network, forced into incessant debt, denied freedom of movement and communication, stripped of their passports or other official papers, paid little if any wages for working extensive hours under awful conditions, and controlled through the threat of violence. The next entry in this series will describe in greater detail some of these horrific conditions, and expose the connections between modern day slavery and our own consumption.

All pictures taken by author.

Dig Deeper:

  1. More people today are enslaved than at any point in history and yet many people think slavery is a problem that was solved long ago. Why do you think so few people are aware of this growing problem?
  2. This article illustrates how a nation state can be heavily responsible for creating the conditions that perpetuate slavery. How might the state benefit from slavery?
  3. Why is it that those of us in more privileged countries are unaware of slavery taking place in other parts of the world?
  4. How might those of us in more privileged countries contribute to slavery elsewhere?

Bales, K. (2000). Expendable people: slavery in the age of globalization. Journal of International Affairs, 53 (2), 461-484.

Bales, K. (1999). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation. (2011). Raiding Abusive Workplaces: Making a Strong Case on Trafficking and Forced Labour The Multidisciplinary Approach in Action. Bangkok: The Labour Rights Promotion Network.

Vital Voices Global Partnership. (2007). Stateless and Vulnerable to Human Trafficking in Thailand. Washington DC: Vital Voices.