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What does it mean to be a slave?

Written by  Friday, 17 February 2017 12:26 Be the first to comment!
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One interesting area of research is the relationship between slavery and slave. One might think that in some way the two should be one-and-the-same, that they are somehow interchangeable. What is clear from research however is how slavery is comprised of several parts. Consequently slavery is a system of sorts, with its own prerequisites, components, and interfaces, and the slave is a component of this system. That being said the slave is its most important part, if for no other reason than the violation slavery perpetuates upon the person of the slave.

What does it mean to be a slave?

The term slave is used so widely nowadays, often emotively so, that it appears to apply to a great many situations. Often it is said, for example, how individuals can be "a slave to the system". The term can be applied to so many situations it can appear to accommodate a great many of them and in doing so, it can lose any tangible meaning. Often too it is claimed when talking about low wages, or some other issue of labour rights, that the affected parties themselves claim to have been reduced to status of slaves. Is the plight of the slave best described then purely as an issue of labour rights? Or is that plight something even more serious, something that goes beyond labour rights, and something that is much more fundamental? Is the condition of a slave one that goes to the very heart of human rights themselves and human dignity itself? To answer these questions there must, first of all, be some way of fixing what it means, in reality, to be a slave. What does it mean to be a slave?

The pathway to enslavement.

One of the most striking elements about sifting through contemporary reports, be they long or even very brief, on modern slavery is how certain themes begin to make themselves apparent. Particular words jump out. Given time these words describe something more adequately than an entire paragraph every could. So repetitive can these words, and particular themes, become it would be easy to put some reports of victimisation aside thinking they had already been reviewed. Even when the researcher is confident that this is his or her first time reading a report the direction it takes can appear not only familiar, but predictable. The reason for this of course is that through the telling of many victim narratives the objective reality, the reality of what it means to be a slave, begins to emerge. When this happens it becomes apparent how the condition of the slave is indeed tangible and how the word slave has tangible meaning. 

One narrative on this condition has become particularly popular, and that is the narrative around the use of kidnappings. Certainly kidnappings do occur in modern slavery, but they are no way reflect the reality of the vast majority most who experience it. The mistakes the narrative supports are compounded through its suggestion that movement of the person, or their transportation, must be somehow significant. Neither of these are required. It is best then to reject the narrative of kidnapping and the notion it gives an adequate insight into enslavement.

Many reports, though not necessarily all of them, on cases of modern slavery will make some reference to some pre-existing vulnerability on the part of the victim. Vulnerability manifests itself in many forms. The individual in question might be poor and desperately looking for opportunities for meaningful employment. The individual might be a migrant who, far from home and far from a community they know, finds themselves isolated in unfamiliar surroundings. Trauma may have played a role earlier in life. For some this could be the death of a close family member, or even a number of family members. For others persecutions such as wars, discrimination, and societal upheaval can play a role. Natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes can too. Of course, the vulnerability of the individual may originate in nothing more than their youthfulness. Whatever its source, vulnerability is preyed upon by human traffickers to enslave.

Vulnerability does not make one a slave, but it does open one up to being manipulated into enslavement. Victims often talk about being their being deceived. An offer, one that was just too good to turn down, may have been made. It could simply have been the offer of a job, perhaps in a place nearby or as far away as another country. It could have been the promise of escape from a place where political upheaval, war, famine or disease was prevalent. Quite often one finds that when natural disasters, such as earthquakes, strike that within months of them occurring there are reports of persons in the afflicted country being exploited by human traffickers. Victims often talk about indebtedness. Sometimes the human trafficker (who clearly does not reveal the fact she or he is a human trafficker) will offer to pay some expense, allowing the victim to pursue the opportunity promised. An arrangement is made which allows the indebted victim to repay their debt through their work. The arrangement seems straightforward enough, one might think, except this is already a situation of bonded labour, a common form of slavery. In some parts of the world traffickers use bonds of an altogether source, in the form of African witchcraft (ie. Juju or Voodoo). Shortly after this point, about the time when the anticipated opportunity was due to be delivered, events usually take an unexpected turn. It becomes apparent how the opportunity never existed, or it may be reported that it had existed but is no longer available. There is another turn too, for the relationship between the victim and the human trafficker now begins to sour to the point of violence, and sour it must because violence is the pathway to enslavement.

Slavery's array of violence.

In recounting the tale of their enslavement victims will often disclose how it was at this point that they were first abused by their trafficker. This abuse can take many forms. It can be very subtle. It can come in the form of verbal abuse. The individual is ridiculed and demeaned. Their indebtedness to the trafficker gives an opportunity to ridicule further and to attack the victim's sense of self-worth. In fact human traffickers deliberately lure their prospective victims into a situation of indebtedness so that they can use it as an opportunity to attack their victim's dignity.

Other elements of the abuse are less subtle. Threats can be made, and they most usually are made, against the individual themselves and against their loved ones. This serves to create a profound sense of fear in the victim. If the victim is a migrant the status of their residency might be leveraged to compound this fear. More overt forms of abuse are commonly experienced: physical abuse, sexual abuse, forced intoxication with drugs and/or alcohol, starvation, and social isolation. If the victim has sworn an oath as part of ritual rites this is leveraged to induce terror. All of these things are forms of violence and they all serve a definite purpose, for there is such a purpose to slavery's array of violence. Human traffickers today understand something that some human beings have known for a long time. It was certainly understood by the slaveholders of old. Human traffickers understand how slaves are made. They understand how slaves are made using violence, and through violence how they are controlled. Every violation and form of abuse, serves the same purpose. These are not different things, but the same thing repeated over and over to achieve a single goal. That goal is the deliberate intention to break the human being, to shatter their spirit, to deprive them of the capacity for independent thought, and to rob them of their very selves. Those who understand these things, see how one cannot understand enslavement without understanding the role of violence. More importantly, they comprehend the true condition of the slave and what the term truly means.

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About David Lohan

David Lohan is an author and researcher on modern slavery, a phenomenon otherwise known as human trafficking. He first encountered the issue of modern slavery during his work with an organization providing outreach to refugees and asylum seekers. His first book on the subject, a co-authored work, explored the role played by African witchcraft in present-day slavery. He holds a bachelor's degree in engineering and several post-graduate qualifications. His Master of Art (Politics) research explored policy approaches aimed at combating slavery. He is presently working on his second book on modern slavery.

With a commitment to victims of modern slavery.

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