Slavery today

This video is the film The Sugar Babies, about exploitation of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic.

From British daily The Morning Star:

The new slavery

(Tuesday 07 October 2008)

EXHIBITION: Disposable People
South Bank Centre, London SE1

IAN SINCLAIR stares exploitation in the face.

Taking its name from Kevin Bales’s seminal 1999 book on the subject, Disposable People explores contemporary slavery across the globe, through the lenses of eight internationally renowned Magnum photojournalists.

Incredibly, there are more slaves alive today – an estimated 27 million, concentrated in the global south – than all the people stolen from Africa during the time of the transatlantic slave trade.

However, unlike the slavery of the past, the exhibition’s introductory text notes, the new slavery is no longer about legal ownership, although it still entails “the complete control and exploitation of one person by another.”

Born out of a slave revolt that started against the French in 1791, it is darkly ironic that Haiti should be the subject of two of the eight photo essays.

Paolo Pellegrin exhibits naturalistic portraits of child domestic slaves in the slums of Port-au-Prince and Alex Webb shows his photographs of the plight of seasonal Haitian sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic.

Both show the extreme poverty and powerlessness that modern-day slavery preys upon, with the cane workers paid very little, with no legal rights or safety equipment under constant harassment from the authorities and banned from travelling outside their place of work.

While, in one sense, Bales is right to argue that “race means little” in contemporary slavery because the search for high profits overrides all other concerns, the exhibition implicitly highlights how it is people of colour, along with women and children and the poor and desperate, who are most at risk of becoming slaves.

Without the legal backing that characterised old slavery, it is normally the threat or actual use of violence that keeps the contemporary slave in their place.

Susan Meiselas’s sympathetic photographic narrative of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore encapsulates these two truisms.

It follows the uneducated young women from their rural homes, through training school and finally to their placement in their employer’s home.

Working long hours for nothing in their first year of service to pay off their recruitment fees, these women are at the complete mercy of masters who may be benevolent or may choose to verbally, physically or sexually abuse them.

Even more extreme is the experience of the now elderly South Korean women forced to work as sex slaves by the Japanese military in World War II, photographed by Chris Steele-Perkins.

Despite being sold in to slavery when they were just 13 and 14-years-old and being forced to have sex with 30-40 Japanese soldiers a day, these women have still not received financial compensation or a public apology from the Japanese government.

Frustratingly, Disposable People often lacks explanatory text, which would provide much-needed context for the photographs on display. More information on how the slaves’ stories relate to our comfortable lives in the West would also have been very welcome.

“Slaves in Pakistan may have made the shoes you are wearing and the carpet you stand on,” explains Bales in his book.

Despite these reservations, Disposable People is an accessible, enlightening and engrossing exhibition likely to leave visitors feeling angry that this appalling level of servitude continues to exist in the world.

There is hope for change, though, with the exhibition’s introductory text, arguing: “Slavery is not a necessary evil. It is officially banned by all countries internationally. Like the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century, it can be ended by concerted action.”

Exhibition runs until November 9. Admission is free. Tours to Plymouth University from January 10-February 21 2009, University of Northumbria from February 28-April 9, Tullie House, Carlisle, from May 23-July 5, New Art Exchange, Nottingham, from August 1- September 13, and Aberystwyth Arts Centre from November 7- Jan 9 2010.

5 thoughts on “Slavery today

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