Saturday, August 20, 2011

Globalization, Poverty, and Slavery - Aljazeera's "The Nigerian Connection"

Drug use and sex work are topics that tend to evoke high emotion in the general public. Viewed as victimless crimes by some, others note that victimization is an integral component of international systems where people are trafficked as contemporary slaves in robust drug and prostitution rings.

Aljazeera’s People & Power recently produced an outstanding two-part series on human trafficking that focuses on global connections between Italy and Nigeria. Titled “The Nigerian Connection,” the first piece examines an Italian community, Territorio di Castel Volturno, where Italian and Nigerian Mafia’s compete for supremacy of the local organized crime scene, as the second piece turns to Nigeria.

In sociology and the broader social sciences, globalization is hot topic that refers to the increasingly efficient connections facilitating economic exchanges across the global landscape. This includes everything from legal modes of communication (e.g., the internet), to money exchange industries (e.g., Western Union, typical banking corporations), to the trafficking of drugs and human beings, provided these transactions cross international borders.

While globalization has existed for centuries, today’s international exchanges occur much faster, and illegal exchanges frequently transpire under the radar of law enforcement, that is unless corrupt law enforcement agencies are directly involved in the trafficking. Conservative figures estimate that approximately 27 million people are trapped as slaves in a given year, more in absolute number than at any time in the 18th or 19th century. Most are forced to work in the agricultural sector, though slaves are also forced into drug trafficking, sex work, and industrial tasks.

Kevin Bales, author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, defines slavery as the total control of one person by another for purpose of economic exploitation. Bales argues that overpopulation in low-income countries has created an increasingly large and vulnerable labor class. An extremely exploitable proletariat, this class is treated by greedy and corrupt capitalists as disposable. Bales further notes that contemporary slavery is characterized by seven qualities that distinguish it from slavery in centuries past:

1. Legal ownership of slaves is avoided
2. Slaves can be purchased at very low cost (for as low as US$90, see here)
3. Slavery yields high profits since slaves are inexpensive
4. Due to overpopulation, the world has a surplus of potential slaves
5. Slaves are disposable, replaceable because of the global surplus
6. Being disposable, slaves have a short relationship with slavers
7. Ethnic differences between slavers and slaves are less important (it is not uncommon to see slavers and slaves from the same ethnic group)

Most of today’s slaves are tricked into slavery through debt bondage – the individual pledges him/herself against a loan of money tied to an inflated cost of transportation to a new country, where the individual will presumably work in a conventional, legal job. However, upon arriving in a new and unfamiliar place, the workers are forced into slave-based jobs with conditions that make it virtually impossible to pay off their debts, escape, or seek help from legal authorities (e.g., passports are taken away).

Watching Aljazeera’s two-part documentary, one can clearly see the seven qualities Bales presents that characterize modern-day slavery, as well as how globalization is facilitating slavery tied to prostitution.

Part I (25 minutes):

Part I offers additional insights into important sociological concepts. For instance, cultural norms are corrupted in order to control the Nigerian female prostitutes via a “Juju oath” that women are forced to take prior to leaving Nigeria (@16 minutes; and @ 12:00 minutes in Part II). This oath is used to control the women while enslaved in Italy. Patriarchy is also clearly evident, as systems are established that privilege men over women. With the prostitutes being predominantly female and without official paperwork, laws are established that further criminalize them. Though prostitution is legal in Italy, sex workers can be arrested (by mostly male police officers) if they do not have residency papers, which obviously these women lack since they are forced to work off the books (@ 17:30 minutes). Note also the comments by the nun regarding a male market (@ 22:30 minutes) that keeps the industry flourishing. Part II shifts to Nigeria’s economic deprivation and internal corruption that fuels an exploitable slave class.

Part II (25 minutes):

Returning to one of Bales’s key points, Part II displays how agents in Nigeria are often Nigerians themselves, who trick young Nigerian women into sexual slavery (@ 5:00 minutes). This further demonstrates the decreasing status of race and ethnicity as rigid markers in the slavery system. Mass poverty is also highlighted as a contributor to the human trafficking machine, with one third of the population in this Nigerian state living on less than $1 per day (@ 7:50 minutes). As such, becoming a human trafficker of one’s own people emerges largely out of economic desperation, while globalization and global stratification provide the distant places of hope that seduce poverty stricken Nigerians into deceit. Part II closes by exploring the illegal trafficking of Nigerian babies (@ 18 minutes).

The two videos provide for excellent pieces on discussions surrounding globalization and contemporary slavery.

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