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Global Capitalism Begets Global Slavery

In 1930, the International Labour Organization set a goal to eradicate forced work. Today, 21 million people are exploited around the world. Globalization is making matters worse.

In this file photo (2005), exploitative labor at a brick factory in the Indian state of Punjab
In this file photo (2005), exploitative labor at a brick factory in the Indian state of Punjab
Alexander Hagelüken


MUNICH — They toil in mines, factories and on construction sites. They are exploited as sex and domestic workers against their will. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates there are nearly 21 million forced laborers worldwide. Forced labor is "fundamentally evil, but hugely profitable," says the ILO's director.

This is where we can moan about all the ills of this world, or hope that slowly things will somehow get better. But the ILO has been around for 100 years. ILO member states decided "to eradicate forced or compulsory labor in all its forms as soon as possible" — in 1930.

New divide

Today the ILO has some 200 member states, and there are still at least 21 million effective slaves on the planet.

In our modern world an interesting division appears to be evolving. There are few limits to the exchange of goods, and national economies are growing. The result is growing wealth. Globalization is subject to increasing numbers of international rules concerning trade and investment. Violators of these rules must face a court of arbitration and risk high fines. But this principle only applies to economic rules. Social abuses are another, often unpunished, matter. Globalization hobbles along on one leg — the economic one.

Meanwhile, the social leg is broken.

It's undeniable that the lives of many people around the globe have improved over the last few decades. In democratic countries, the citizens themselves have seen to that. And institutions such as the International Labour Organization have negotiated a series of important agreements that are legally binding for their members. But the inevitable question they raise is how many of these well-intentioned objectives actually become reality?

As early as 1919, the first minimum age was decided in the attempt to reduce child labor. Since 1949 workers have supposedly been able to organize themselves without hindrance. And yes, women are supposed to earn as much as men — that's been around since 1951. But these principles are still so far from being applied universally.

Anyone who violates trade agreements feels the sharp sword of international law. And anybody who endangers a company's investments risks getting slapped with compensation payments in the billions. Critics of the EU's trade agreement with the United States fear that it's going to be gone after lock, stock and barrel because of environmental and health standards. But the contrast between the harsh sanctions for abuse of globalization's economic rules and the weak consequences for abuse of social rules is huge.

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Child labor in Nepal - Photo - Krish Dulal

Standing behind the economic principles are powerful institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. Behind the social principles? The UN and its fine declarations. Incidentally, according to the UN's so-called millennium goals, hunger and extreme poverty are supposed to have gone the way of the dinosaur by the end of next year.

Why do economic rules get international priority? Because of companies that want to do business and are able to penetrate governments better than amorphous masses of citizens whose voices can't be heard. It's also because firm rules for developing a market economy result in multiplying wealth and therefore help everyone, whereas social rules tend to pose limitations. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton learned that in 1999 when he tried to introduce social standards into world trade talks. Many countries, including many poor ones, regarded the move as subterfuge for protectionism instead of a good deed.

It's clear by now that a broadened market economy has increased global wealth. But as globalization has in many cases increased rather than diminished inequality, it's obvious that any notion of market economies curing social ills is antiquated. So then why does a worldwide organization with the teeth to address social issues still sound crazy?

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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