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World View : Slavery, 20th-Century Style : In the Third World, bonded labor and child exploitation are widespread. Debt and greed set the trap; family burdens often perpetuate it.

August 06, 1991|CHARLES P. WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGKOK, Thailand — With her cherubic face, purple T-shirt and jeans, Mukda looks like a fairly typical 14-year-old from the rural areas of Thailand. She stands barely 4 1/2 feet tall and giggles bashfully when asked a personal question.

Until police rescued her in late July, Mukda was a slave.

Eight months earlier, she had been brought to Bangkok from her village near the Myanmar border and sold to a brothel by her stepfather.

Every night, seven days a week, Mukda was forced to sleep with five or six men. The $1 per customer she earned was written down in a ledger, to be offset against the amount paid to her stepfather.

Mukda was never allowed to leave the brothel, kept imprisoned behind a barbed-wire fence with a constant threat of beatings. When a Times reporter found her during a police raid, she was curled up with 23 other girls on a foul-smelling floor of what looked like a stall in a stable.

"I want to go back to my village," she said in a tiny voice. "I'm afraid."

Slavery. It sounds like a relic of the distant past, a dinosaur of human behavior found in dramas like "Roots" and "Gone with the Wind." But more than a century after Lincoln freed the slaves in America, slavery in various forms is still widespread in the developing world.

"People in the West are told in school that slavery was abolished long ago, but sadly there are more slaves now than ever before," said Alan Whittaker, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, a London-based group founded in 1839 to fight the traffic in slaves from Africa.

"Today's slaves are not made by iron chains, they are made by debt and exploitation," Whittaker said in a telephone interview.

These days, it is relatively rare to find old forms of slavery in which people are sold at auction. So the focus of current anti-slavery efforts is aimed at ending the practice of bonded labor, where a worker spends years struggling to repay a debt, and the exploitation of child labor at little or no wages.

Forced labor is prohibited by a United Nations convention, as is hazardous work for children under 18 and most other jobs for children under 15. Throughout the developing world, child laborers are prized for working cheap and raising few objections to their working conditions.

The worst examples of existing slavery are in India, where there are an estimated 5 million people working in bonded labor, mainly in agricultural jobs. Although the practice has been outlawed since 1976, the law is apparently rarely enforced.

Poor farm workers have no assets, so when they need to borrow money for medicine, a funeral or other emergencies, they have to mortgage their labor. The practice is common in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well.

"They live in hovels like animals. Once they get into the hands of unscrupulous landlords, it's almost impossible to get out," said Swami Agnivesh, head of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front in New Delhi.

The debts, often as little as $25, can nonetheless take up to 50 years to pay off because of usurious interest rates. Some debts are even passed from generation to generation--Agnivesh said his group had seen cases of seventh- or eighth-generation descendants working to pay off loans.

In addition, an estimated 55 million children are working in conditions approaching bondage in garages and small factories making rugs, matches and glass. They work for as little as 40 cents a week.

In one town in Tamil Nadu province, for example, 45,000 children work 15 to 16 hours a day making phosphorous matches and fireworks in conditions which are filthy and, because of the possibility of fire, dangerous, according to Whittaker.

Other examples of slavery and labor exploitation given by Anti-Slavery International:

* In the Sudan, slavery in the old style emerged four years ago when raids took place between the Muslim north and the Christian south of the country. Boys are sold as shepherds and girls as domestic workers for about $15 each.

* In West Africa, there's a booming trade in children sold as domestic servants. In Latin America, a form of false adoption exists in which poor children are adopted into families to serve as maids and servants without pay other than their food.

* In China, where the poor cannot afford the dowry to get married, women are kidnaped and sold to poor farmers as wives. In Nepal, children are abducted to be sold as laborers or prostitutes.

* Pakistan has a huge brick industry that employs thousands of bonded laborers to make clay bricks by baking them in the sun. The laborers include women and children, some of whom are even chained to the ground as they work.

* In places such as Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh, thousands of child laborers are used in the textile industry.

* In Colombia and Peru, young children are used in dangerous jobs working in mines. Street children in Brazil are rounded up and exploited by unscrupulous employers, who call youngsters "little airplanes" because they work as drug runners.

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