The new movie Twelve Years a Slave is starting to generate discussion about the horrors of slavery in 19th century America and the legacy of slavery today. But hopefully, it also contributes to a growing recognition that slavery still exists in many forms. Close to 30 million people globally—including hundreds of thousands of miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo—remain trapped in conditions that amount to slavery, according to a report released last week.
The report, by an Australian group called the Walk Free Foundation, uses the term “modern slavery” to describe the many forms of slavery that persist in modern times. In some countries, such as Mauritania, people are still actually bought and sold, given to each other as gifts, and considered as property. More common today, though, are cases in which individuals are held against their will in various conditions of servitude. They may be young girls forced into marriage without consent, women forced into prostitution, children forced to fight in wars, or other people caught in situations from which they cannot escape.
Mauritania, Haiti, and Pakistan have the highest number of enslaved people in proportion to their population, according to the report, which ranks 162 countries in a “Global Slavery Index.” India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Myanmar, and Bangladesh have the highest total number of slaves, by absolute numbers, and together account for more than 75 percent of all enslaved people.
For the jewelry industry, one of the most alarming aspects of the report is the link it draws between mining and modern slavery in the DRC. About 450,000 people in the DRC are trapped in modern slavery, and mainly in connection with natural resources including gold.
The problem is especially bad in eastern DRC, where rebel groups and corrupt army officials have been fighting each other in a deadly civil war. According to the report, competing armed groups in the DRC are forcing men and women to mine for minerals. Conditions are hellish; women forced to work in the mines during the day are often sexually exploited at night. Children, valued for their ability to enter difficult-to-reach mine areas, are targeted by armed groups too. Many are enslaved in the mines, while others are forced to become child soldiers.
Another aspect of the problem is a system known as “debt bondage.” Many new miners borrow money from their employers for the tools they will need or for necessities like food and shelter. But the miners are intentionally paid so little money, and charged such high interest rates, that they can never pay the debt off. They remain trapped, and if they try to escape they can face violence or arrest. The report states that most of the men working in mines in eastern DRC, perhaps 90 percent, are trapped in debt bondage.
So what should be done to stop modern slavery in the DRC? The report recommends that companies sourcing minerals from the DRC unite to stop the violence and help reform the mining sector. (Essentially, it asks companies to do more than comply with a new U.S. law on “conflict minerals” that asks them to investigate their supply chains.) It also recommends action by the Congolese government and the international community.
Real action, of course, will depend on building political momentum for change. And it is here, perhaps, that the report makes its biggest contribution.
The injustices faced by miners in the DRC and other developing countries are often not communicated clearly enough. Discussion of “child labor” and “forced labor” alone does not always adequately convey the misery that many miners endure, or their powerlessness. And some umbrella terms like “trafficking” (the State Department for many years has used “trafficking” in its own detailed reports) may not be well-understood by the public.
The Walk Free Foundation, by using the term “modern slavery,” begins to place some of these issues in the starker light that they deserve. It didn’t invent that terminology. (President Obama began using it last year and it is now starting to be used by the State Department too.) But by promoting the term, and by updating its Global Slavery Index each year, the group will make it more likely that certain practices—including forced labor in mining—will be treated as moral outrages that must be ended, just as slavery was once outlawed in the United States.