The modern slavery scam – now just down the street from you?

As the world gets scarier, faster and more greedy, refugees, economic migrants and also innocents kidnapped and enslaved by rogue groups associated with all sorts of mischief (drugs, prostitution, illicit work schemes, and various related rorts) all increasingly become part of the growing ‘modern slavery scam’. As the BBC article below suggests re: the UK (1), it can ‘invade every town and city’ of a modern reasonably affluent nation – with relatively few locals even being really aware of this. Just last week the Rooney family from Lincolnshire were exposed as your next-door ‘behind close doors’ neighbors from hell with a long-term secret of engaging in the slave trade (2). They have been found guilty of enslaving at least 18 homeless and disabled people to work for little or no pay and live in squalor for up to 26 years (3). Whilst mostly a scam to hold vulnerable people to work for free, they also demonstrated a capacity for threats and violence (4). In the last week also, a ‘slavery risk index’ was released (5) highlighting how vulnerable are people already often suffering the need to flee from violence, poverty and the ruination of their basic living (due to wars, climate change, and destructive corporate agendas): “defining modern slavery as an ‘umbrella term for slavery, servitude, trafficking in persons and forced or compulsory labor’ the index measures the strength of laws, the effectiveness of law enforcement and the severity of violations in 198 countries. The report found 60% of countries ranked in the “high” or “extreme risk” category” . This last point (i.e.60% of all countries in the high or extreme level) is a good indicator how bad and widespread the problem is.

Some of the countries where new forms of modern slavery either remain or are increasingly endemic are in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. But also in parts of Europe (Romania was especially singled out by the report) this is on the rise with organized crime gangs (or evil opportunists like the Rooneys) especially preying on refugees or those desperate for related reasons. In Asia countries like India and Thailand were identified with longstanding practices that current governments are at least trying to genuinely address and alleviate – with Thailand (the focus of an earlier post) (6) improving from 27 to 49 on the list of worst countries. Despite such better efforts at the government level, the report points out how “The trouble is that modern slavery is so endemic in both India and Thailand … so there’s a long way to go” (5). A central problem is farmers and indigenous groups all used to ‘subsistence living’ in rural or wilderness areas being driven from or disposed of their lands and livelihood by various market forces or interests that they cannot resist or compete with – and now struggling to survive at all. As in many other countries in the region (e.g. Malaysia), many of the economic or even political refugees from neighboring countries often are illegally conscripted into many of the local industries – some being paid cheap rates for their work and others more exploited because of their status. As well as the normal high-risk industries (agriculture, hospitality, entertainment, poultry, security and beauty services) there is also exploitation sometimes tantamount to slavery in building or construction, mining, palm oil, fishing, and so on.

In addition to projects in some of these industries, my own extensive encounter with this has mainly been (care of my wife) in relation to the maids of Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and on to the Middle East and beyond (i.e. ‘domestic workers’) – many young lowly-paid Filippinas often just trying to help their families, but increasingly Indonesians, Indians, and others. We once worked in a staff residential compound in Singapore with lots of Filipina maids with my wife the only Filipina ‘madam’ they could confide in telling us tales of abuse or exploitation about colleagues (and their spouses) I had to work with during the day (a real ‘eye-opener’). And at this time at least (things seemed to have improved quite a bit in the Lion City) there were the laboring workers from places like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nepal who were often paid at their home (not Singaporean) rates, who at night were housed in converted shipping containers packed several high, and who were transported crammed into the back of work-trucks by local agents (normally against the law and dangerous, but this did not apply in their case as foreign workers). We won’t even touch here several other industries of relevance such as sex workers and banking for suspect regional ‘interests’.

This week there has been a heat wave in Hong Kong, and there have been calls to ban the maids from accessing air conditioning (as one politician said they are from hot). A Ms. Wong got the ball rolling by posting online that her maid had the audacity to turn on the air-conditioning whilst cleaning the house the other day in the current heatwave, and that she planned to disrupt the switch to prevent this happening again (7). Then a local politician harnessed the outrage about this to call for a nation-wide prohibition on maids using aircons at all (8). As he put it, many of the maids came from hot climates and they therefore needed to get used to working in sweltering conditions. For those who can recall the recent well-known case of Erwiana (9 & 10) (or similar cases that have put the spotlight on this problem), there is awareness and sensitivity still about the position of maids – who (a) are often not just expected to cook and clean but as well to be nannies, home English teachers and/or other diverse functions; (b) who are typically not being paid very much yet often denied even a day off a week, and (c) like the case of Erwiana (which has been repeated countless times around Asia and the Middle East and wherever people resort to low-paid domestic helpers) in some extreme cases have also been beaten and tortured and/or raped (or ‘seduced’ with no option) and/or occasion have even been murdered, unfairly locked up and even driven insane (11) [Over the last 20 years of following such cases, I have not been able to get out of my mind images of the worst instances where maids were branded on the face with hot irons, nipples cut off, treated as sex slaves, and being slowly starved and/or violently beaten to death – that is, about the evils that some people get up to behind closed doors] (e.g. the recent case of 12).

At the heart of the notion of slavery is the concept of people being sold into servitude of some kind as kind of commodity or property – either by others temporarily (deceived by crooked agents) or even by oneself permanently (making a deal which was never going to be honored by others). In any case, the people doing the enslaving are caught up as much as the enslaved (the enslavers also become kind of enslaved themselves to a rotten system). We live now in a world where an awful lot of people are also caught up in more subtle or less obvious forms of ‘living in chains’ (think of ‘wage-slaves’ living week to week often almost as desperate as those with nothing), and even the very rich and powerful have a great invested interest in preventing anyone becoming really free of either their visible or invisible straitjackets (they can’t really stop you if you hold firm). And in terms of the enslavers, if there is anything worse than a bureaucratic slave its a corporate one – who not only has much of the responsibility for dodgy practices in the world today, but a pivotal responsibility to stop this and to try and make a better world.

Australia is not as free of this scourge as most think. Like the UK and countries everywhere, ‘modern slavery in Australia is hiding in plain sight’ (13). There are estimated to be around 4000 clear-cut or conventional cases of ‘slavery in the lucky country’ (14). But as in most other countries there is black work which often epitomizes aspects of slavery – not just Asian students working for very little in Chinese restaurants, likewise Indian students driving taxis and working for the 7-11 shopping chain and certain fast-food operations, but also backpackers, students, and other short-term foreign workers organized by exploitative agents in some instances to do fruit and vegetable picking (and similar work). Typical of this are the cases such as the ’50 illegal foreign workers crammed into motel rooms’ (14). On such a basis there has been a renewed push for Australia to have a ‘modern slavery act’ (15) with a parliamentary inquiry about this (pushed for by Twiggy Forrest and others) instituted in February this year (16). Its not a moment too soon. But except for the very obvious cases of outright criminal slavery (which do need to be shut down), the desperate deals and indentured relationships people get into can be very complex and even sometimes ‘necessary evil’ for many of the victims and/or their families to merely survive. So what often needs to happen is not simply immediate change or cessation, but rather better efforts to protect and support people (e.g. the domestic help maids) in such situations where possible.

8. (politician)
– CKR 11/8/2017

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