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Modern-Day Slavery: In Ghana and the World

At the beginning of this year, I was given the opportunity to attend a 4-day seminar with the leading expert in modern day slavery Dr. Kevin Bales. I learned an extraordinary amount about modern-day slavery from Dr. Bales, but what I found most interesting was the many forms that slavery currently takes in the country of Ghana.

Slavery is commonly taught in the United States as a historic system that began with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 17th century and ended following the US Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. However, slavery pre-dates the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by thousands of years. In fact, Ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire made slavery integral to their social systems.” What many people don’t realize is that slavery is still alive and well today, it has simply taken a new form. Unfortunately, although the delusion that slavery is simply an atrocity of the past pervades many of our modern societies, it couldn’t be further from the truth – slavery still exists in the 21st century. In fact, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 45.8 million people are still enslaved around the world today. That means that there are more people enslaved today than there were during the entirety of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Unlike Antebellum Era slavery, modern-day slavery is far more difficult to detect, and often goes entirely unnoticed (or unacknowledged) for extended periods of time. According to Kevin Bales, in his book Disposable People, “even when shown photographs and affidavits, nations’ officials deny [modern-day slavery’s] existence.”

commonly referred to as “human trafficking” in the last decade, and the majority of coverage is in the form of sensationalist writing about the atrocities of sex trafficking. It is unfortunately common for organizations – especially those with Christian affiliations – to “employ enslaved people’s narratives as illustrations, while they provide their own philosophy,” thereby using slave narratives to further their own agendas. (Murphy 98). Also common in the media, is the portrayal of slavery survivors as victims, helpless to save themselves, who are in desperate need of our assistance. The results of this are perhaps best described by Dr. Kevin Bales: “When we typecast freed slaves as pathetic victims, however well-meaning that action might be, we deny the unique truth of each lived experience of slavery.” Furthermore, the mainstream media’s obsession with sex trafficking results in a lack of public awareness of other prominent forms of modern-day slavery. Certainly, sex trafficking is a severe issue that plagues our societies, and we must work diligently to abolish it. However, equally important, and yet often forgotten, are the atrocities of labor trafficking around the world. In fact, a larger number of people are forced into labor trafficking than sex trafficking, and yet it remains widely unreported on.

Of the 45.8 million people currently enslaved globally, there are an estimated “5.6 million people currently enslaved in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.” Many of these slaves can be found in Ghana, forced to work in galamsey mines or required to fish on Lake Volta. Both of these involuntary occupations prove to be incredibly hazardous for the men, women and children trapped in servitude due to their deplorable working conditions, and their lack of advanced tools. Galamsey mines are particularly dangerous “due to frequent mine collapses, poisonous dust inhalation, and exposure to toxic chemicals used to extract gold from ore.” This is because it is cheaper to simply replace a slave, than to provide safe working conditions and adequate medical access to insure their health and well being. Whereas in the past, slaves held a relatively high monetary value, following the exponential increase in the global population in the years following World War II, the price of slaves plummeted and now they are worth very little. Paired with the “rapid social and economic change” that the developing world was undergoing post-WW2, the conditions created a heightened level of vulnerability to trafficking in many third-world countries. Whereas in the past a slave was worth approximately $40,000 US dollars, in the modern world a slave is, on average, worth about $90. Slaves are especially inexpensive in the developing world, and can be sold for as cheap as $10.

In order to fully understand modern-day slavery, it is essential to first understand how people come to be enslaved. After all, slavery is illegal in every country, and yet it still exists – to some extent – in nearly every corner of the world. One of the most common forms of trafficking is debt bondage, and it begins with one simple question: “Want a job?” Debt bondage allows traffickers to deceive victims into believing that their predicament is their own fault by using victims’ “pride and honesty to manipulate them [and] by appealing to their sense of fair play.”  The debt trap is precisely how Ibrahim and his Uncle were first trafficked into slavery in Southern Ghana to work in an illegal gold mine. Ibrahim was born in a small village in Northern Ghana that he describes as “very poor…the land is poor, there is little water. There are lots of people, but little work” (“Blood” 128). After his mother and father died, Ibrahim and his uncle decided to travel South, “following a trail of stories of the golden south where there was plenty of food and good jobs.” However, upon their arrival, they quickly realized that the “golden south” was simply a myth – there were no jobs for them.

Displaced and desperate, Ibrahim and his uncle “met a man who said he could get [them] jobs in a gold mine” (lbid). After following the man to his gold mine, Ibrahim and his uncle realized that it was not a legal operation, and began to question their new-found “employer”; however, by that time it was too late to escape – “there were guards to keep [them] from leaving” – but the two men still remained hopeful that they would receive the payment they had initially been promised after three months. Ibrahim describes the working conditions that he was forced to endure as nearly unbearable, and explains that – although his uncle tried to protect him – “any mistake [he] made would bring a beating” (lbid). After the three-month period had elapsed, Ibrahim, his uncle, and the other workers were expecting to be paid, but their trafficker (still masquerading as their legitimate employer) informed them that they hadn’t earned any money. Instead, they were told that they now owed even more, and would have to repay it with interest before they were allowed to leave the gold mine. Of course, the sum was entirely unattainable to the men, and so they remained enslaved under the pretense of debt. Ibrahim realized that “they were stuck,” but also “assumed that it was their own fault” (“Blood” 131). Thus began Ibrahim’s enslavement, although he was not fully aware of it at the time. Now, as an adult, Ibrahim continues to work in the same gold mine under the watchful eye of his “boss” who “encourages him to work harder with blows and abuse.”

The obvious question is: “why don’t victims simply run away?”. The answer, however, is far more complex. Initially, victims of trafficking are not fully aware that they are actually enslaved. Instead, they simply believe that they have accumulated great debt and, most often, they have a “very strong sense that a debt must be repaid, and that a person wo does not pay their debt is a thief and a sinner.”  Furthermore, their trafficker will maintain the charade of intending to pay them for as long as possible, so slaves continue to work with the hope that they might eventually get paid enough to fulfill their debt and move on. Of course, the charade eventually expires and victims come to the unfortunate realization that they are trapped in slavery. However, at this point, victims are keenly aware of the constant, and very real, threat of violence that hangs over their heads if they attempt to escape. Much like in the Antebellum South, runaway slaves in the modern world are hunted down by their traffickers and are punished with violence. The high level of political corruption in the developing world aids in the tracking down of slaves; it is all too common for corrupt local police officials to track down runaways, knowing that they will be paid off by the traffickers. On the off chance that an escaped slave is brought before a judge to plead for freedom, traffickers will simply pay “another bribe to secure a conviction for defrauding the gold buyer (in his role as lender)” (“Blood” 147). Even if an individual dies while enslaved, still their debt does not disappear; the burden is simply passed down to his or her next of kin, thereby shackling the entire family line.

While this situation seems almost-entirely hopeless, there are many ways to reduce the amount of slavery on Ghana’s “gold coast.” For instance, governments of developed nations can crack down on slavery by forcing corporations to better regulate their supply chains. Great Britain is doing just that with the “Modern Slavery Bill…which will require businesses with over a certain level of turnover to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement.” With this Bill, the British Crown hopes to reduce the 11% of UK businesses that currently “think it ‘likely’ that some sort of modern slavery exists in their supply chains,” by requiring a higher level of transparency. However, although supply chains seem like one of the best ways to eradicate modern-day slavery because they are our most direct link to the atrocity, they are not the most efficient way to combat slavery because most slave outputs never actually reach the global market. Instead, slave-made products are most often produced, bought, and sold at the local level. Fortunately, many NGO’s like Free the Slaves are dedicated to ending modern-day slavery through other – more effective – methods. Free the Slaves works with local-partner organizations in Ghana to help spread awareness about the threat of slavery, and provide at-risk communities with preventative measures to shield them from traffickers. Since entering the fight to end forced mining in Ghana, Free the Slaves has taught communities how to identify a legitimate job from a debt trap, and the percentage of people “who could identify suitable work rose from 5 percent to 93 percent.” Furthermore, the organization has also given communities more information on government assistance for survivors of slavery, and “The percentage of people who had knowledge of government agencies to contact in cases of child exploitation rose from 25 percent to 61 percent.”

One of Free the Slave’s oldest partnerships is with a Ghanaian-founded organization called Challenging Heights that works to “rescue children in forced labor,” and “offer continuous survivor rehabilitation and recovery support” (“James”). Since its founding, Challenging Heights has managed to rescue over 1,500 children from traffickers on Lake Volta, and have put over 400 children through their survivor rehabilitation center which provides much-needed medical care, education, and support as children are reunited with their families and reintegration into their communities. In addition, Challenging Height’s is also in the business of slave proofing communities through education and economic empowerment programs that provide legitimate jobs to those in need. The founder of Challenging Heights, James Kofi Annan, is actually a survivor of child slavery on Lake Volta himself. Mr. Annan was trafficked at age six, and was enslaved for seven years before he escaped and went on to pursue his education. Today, Mr. Annan uses his powerful personal narrative to raise awareness on the issue of modern-day slavery around the world. Most recently, he addressed the United Nations assembly on December 2, 2016 which marks the International Day for the Abolishment of Slavery.

Child trafficking is the most common form of enslavement on Lake Volta in Ghana. In fact, an estimated 4,000 children have been trafficked into the fishing industry on Lake Volta. Due to the lack of education opportunities in Ghana, many parents are often persuaded to send their children (Some even as young as four years old) to receive a “proper education” in return for what they are told will be “a few hours of work.” However, in reality, “Ghanaian children are sold into a life of forced labor, malnutrition, and abuse,” and are forced to work long and strenuous hours in life-threatening conditions. Although the children are forced to work in rickety boats on Lake Volta, many of them are never instructed on rudimentary water safety skills, and lack even the most basic swimming abilities. As one would imagine, this results in many unnecessary child deaths; furthermore, many children also get tangled in underwater nets and, unable to escape, drown in the lake. Aside from the danger of drowning, children are also forced to struggle with severe malnutrition since they are provided with only one small meal a day. In addition, much like Ibrahim in the Ghanaian gold mines, James Kofi Annan recalls: “Each time I made a mistake as a child fisherman, I was tortured.” Unfortunately, many young children like Mr. Annan endure his same fate.

Fortunately, Free the Slaves, Challenging Heights and their partners have a plan that could end child slavery on Lake Volta in the next five years. Using modern surveying technology, anti-trafficking workers plan to use spatial recognition technology to identify trafficking site on Lake Volta, that will allow them to better coordinate their extraction methods for rescuing victims of child slavery. Furthermore, they hope that this new technology will soon be adapted to help identify other forms of modern-day slavery – such as the trafficking that takes place in illegal Ghanaian gold mines like the one that Ibrahim was enslaved in – as well. Surprisingly, the cost of eradicating slavery is relatively low on the global scale. In fact, it only costs $400 US dollars to liberate and completely rehabilitate a slave. On an aggregate level, that means that we can end slavery for 18.3 billion dollars. At first glance, that seems like an unachievable sum. However, Americans spend $18 billion on video games annually; $18 billion also the annual amount of accrued credit card late fees in the United States. According to a recent study done by the Washington Post, President Trump’s incredibly-controversial border wall is estimated to cost approximately $25 billion dollars. If President Trump chose to use that money to eradicate modern-day slavery, we could liberate 45.8 million people, save $7 billion dollars, and avoid the environmental disaster that the border wall is sure to create.

The eradication of slavery is within reach – it can be achieved in our lifetimes – but first we must expand our efforts to spread awareness, rescue and rehabilitate survivors, and take preventative measures to ensure that now-vulnerable communities are slavery-proof in the future. After all, although there are 45.8 million people currently enslaved, that is the smallest percentage of slaves to be represented in the global population to this day. Furthermore, the collective revenue created by slavery also accounts for the smallest percentage of the global economy in all of history. We have made tremendous progress in the fight to end slavery, but the war is not yet won. If we are to truly eradicate slavery in the 21st century, we must continue on diligently, remembering the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “No one is free until we are all free”

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