The reality of modern slavery

It's not all that different from old slavery

The EU flag.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The eyes of the American people seldom stray beyond these borders, and when they do, it tends to be in the direction of others who live lives very much like their own in places within the NATO sphere of influence. This is true even of the most cosmopolitan observers.

This is why, even if we were not in the middle of a pandemic, I would not expect much of anything to be made of a recent lawsuit filed in the Netherlands on behalf of a group of expatriate Eritreans. The suit alleges — I almost hesitate to employ the standard journalese here because the facts do not seem to be at issue — that forced labor is being used in the construction of roads and other infrastructure projects in the east African nation that are financed by the European Union.

There is certainly no dispute about the presence of forced labor in Eritrea. With the exception of North Korea, one of only two countries it ranks ahead of in the World Press Freedom Index, it has the highest rate of forced labor in the entire world. Estimates suggest that nearly one in ten Eritreans are subject to unpaid state-mandated labor. This takes a variety of forms. In some cases military conscripts are required to perform non-military labor on behalf of the state; in others, it is a more direct process of enlisting civilians to do construction and other work. A sizable number of Eritreans in both groups are taken by the government directly from the country's public schools, where attendance is compulsory. This includes both teachers and children.

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These practices are not new. They have been denounced by human rights observers around the world, including the United Nations, which has called the program "tantamount to slavery."

At the risk of quibbling unnecessarily, I would like to suggest that the qualifier here is unnecessary, as are common designations such as "modern slavery." There is nothing especially contemporary about slavery in Eritrea today. Like the chattel slavery practiced in this country in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is the direct result of globalized free trade. Just as the Whig magnates of Manchester and Birmingham and the financiers of London made possible the spoliation carried out by South Carolina planters, so too does investment from Europe, the Middle East, and, especially, China allow the dictatorial regime in Eritrea to enslave its own citizens. So far from being a horrifying aberration, slavery was and remains an essential part of the borderless capitalism that many economists consider the greatest liberating force in the history of mankind.

There is only one hope for the slaves of Eritrea: international institutions whose organizing principle is not the facilitation of economic growth for its own sake but the peace and security of persons in all countries. Whatever the results of the recent E.U. lawsuit, we should not expect the Gulf States and the Chinese to cease taking advantage of what they consider a mere investment opportunity. As I write this, Chinese state media unabashedly boasts that Beijing (which is no stranger to the enslavement of peoples within its own borders) is "Eritrea's largest trading partner, source of foreign investment and project contractor." I wonder why. In comparison with the Arab and Chinese spending in Eritrea, the 80 million euros dispensed by Brussels (seemingly with the best of intentions) are a drop in the bucket.

This should not be allowed to continue. The development of modern infrastructure in Eritrea and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa should not come at the expense of those whom it is ostensibly meant to benefit. But until the UN and the IMF and the WTO and all those other dreary acronyms are replaced by what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once famously referred to as international governing bodies "with teeth," one despairs of any other outcome.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.