What is Slavery?

Posted: September 23, 2011 in GLOA 491

There is a passage in Kevin Bales’ Disposable People that has me thinking about slavery definitions. On page 5 Bales says:

“…the word slavery continues to be used to mean all sorts of things, and all too often it is applied as an easy metaphor. Having just enough money to get by, receiving wages that may barely keep you alive, may be called wage slavery, but it is not slavery. Sharecroppers have a hard life, but they are not slaves. Child labor is terrible, but it is not necessarily slavery.”

So how is slavery defined? I looked around and found some interesting answers that range from very broad to very specific:

  1. Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slavery) says: 1: drudgery, toil. 2: submission to a dominating influence. 3:a-state of a person who is a chattel of another; b-the practice of slaveholding.
  2. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery) says: “Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property and are forced to work.” (It should be noted that Wikipedia has separate pages for “slavery” and “contemporary slavery”.)
  3. From Bales, Disposable People (p. 6): “The total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation.”
  4. For the US State Department (http://www.state.gov/g/tip/what/index.htm), Human Trafficking and ‘Modern Slavery’ are synonyms: ““…trafficking in persons” and “human trafficking” have been used as umbrella terms for activities involved when someone obtains or holds a person in compelled service. The United States government considers trafficking in persons to include all of the criminal conduct involved in forced labor and sex trafficking, essentially the conduct involved in reducing or holding someone in compelled service.”
  5. The International Labour Organization (http://tinyurl.com/3jzcvx8) has a broad definition of forced labor: “The ILO defines forced labour as work or service exacted from a person under threat or penalty, which includes penal sanctions and the loss of rights and privileges, where the person has not offered him/herself voluntarily.”

These are all pretty similar, but not quite identical. Bales would probably disagree with Merriam-Webster’s definition of slavery as “drudgery, toil.”

What do you think of these definitions? Have you come across a different one that you feel captures the practice of slavery clearly, accurately, and concisely?

  1. pmoore7 says:

    Interesting Craig. I agree with the words “drudgery” and “toil” used by Merriam-Webster. They seem to “soft” in explaining what these people go through. I do like the fact that Wikipedia has two separate pages for slavery and contemporary slavery. Out of all of the definitions, I appreciate the ILO’s. I agree with Bale’s too but think he needs to expand–is it only for economic exploitation? I’m not so sure, I think some people are just cruel. What about the Kuwaiti princesses he discusses in the beginning of the book. What was their gain for owning and horribly abusing a slave? When we were talking about forced prostitution/trafficking in Atlanta last week, and how the community’s reaction was essentially indifferent to the problem, I thought about the anti-smoking campaign. I thought, what if it were possible to show the public graphic pictures of the results of slavery? It may sound extreme but that was what came to mind. As a reformed smoker myself (thank goodness!), I know that photos they show today of rotting gums, and black lungs could very well have deterred me from the awful habit when I was a teenager. So why couldn’t we put up billboards of slavery and trafficking victims? We don’t have to show their faces of course. Would that have any effect?

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