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21st Century Slavery
By Betty Zou, Prince of Wales Collegiate, St. John's, NL
(selected Core French student of the year for Newfoundland & Labrador)

The dictionary defines a paradox as "a statement that seems self-contradictory, but contains a truth" and the three words "21st century slavery" are just that. The United Nations proclaimed 2004 as the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and Its Abolition. Ironically, there are still 27 million people worldwide who are sold, bought, and forced to work under horrendous conditions. They live a life of captivity and exploitation not unlike those of the African-American plantation slaves 200 years ago. In today's power- and profit-driven society, most are oblivious to these crimes against humanity, despite the fact that much of the world owes its success to the very existence of these modern-day slaves.

Described by officials as "the fastest growing criminal market in the world," and perhaps the most lucrative, human trafficking has far surpassed the drug trade in its monetary rewards, with global profits reaching $9 billion in 2000. In many developing countries, elements such as civil conflict, political instability, famine, HIV/AIDS and economic stagnation have amplified the number of displaced individuals in desperate situations. Often in dire poverty and need, these people are easy prey for traffickers who pose as employment agents and lure them with false promises of good paying jobs and opportunities for a better life. For forced labourers held in debt bondage, their debt never seems to decrease, perpetuated by dishonest accounting, exorbitant interest rates and outrageous deductions for food, rent and other necessities.

In addition to their captivity, most modern-day slaves are subject to unjust and cruel treatment from their owners, which includes harassment, physical, mental and sexual abuse, exposure to harmful substances, and inhuman working conditions. In the case of women, pregnancy testing, birth control, forced abortions, and no maternity leave are standard procedures of the workplace. Likewise, children are kept from school and are required to work in debilitating environments that are detrimental to their growth and development. It is under these conditions that slaves generate the estimated $13 billion they contribute annually to the global economy.

In a society that prides itself on its fairness, liberty, and equality, it is both preposterous and unacceptable that slavery still exists today. Young girls and women are becoming valuable commodities in the profitable, international sex trade; Middle eastern boys are forced to become soldiers or camel jockeys; parents are compelled to sell their children and their own bodies simply to survive in a world that is, for the most part, totally unaware and unconcerned about their fate. Sadly, this is not a problem that can just be blamed on the gang leaders or the corporate CEO's; it is a problem created society's consummation of materialistic wealth, glory and power. We are so blinded that we fail to see the misery of the millions of fellow citizens from whom we have taken the most basic and universal human rights, which to them are such rare and precious gifts.

In 1960, the world's 20 richest countries had 30 times more wealth than the 20 poorest nations; by 2000, that gap had increased by 74 times. Today, roughly three billion people, on half of the Earth's population, struggle to survive on less than $2 a day. In their fight to live, these desperate individuals resort to selling family members, body organs, and eventually, themselves.

Many people say that admitting is the first step to recovery. In order to combat this intolerable crime, one must first become fully aware of it and recognize its unfortunate existence. Through education and international co-operation, we can eliminate 21st century slavery for good and transform it from a harsh reality to the simple words that represent the greatest example of irony it was meant to be.


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