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At TV's midseason, Joan Cusack brings humor and insight to her new ABC show

Slavery still lives. It survives despite universal laws against it. It has many faces, but none worse than the exploitation of children who are kidnapped from their families and forced to work under horrific conditions.

A shocking new documentary by Kate Blewett and Brian Woods, Carpet Slaves: Stolen Children of India (Cinemax, March 26, 7-8 p.m.) exposes one form of slavery with chilling implications for the global economy.

This remarkable British film team was inspired by the work of American anthropologist Kevin Bales. His book "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy" (University of California Press) looks at a variety of slavery's forms. But it was a speech he gave on the subject that drove Ms. Blewett and Mr. Woods into northern India.

"We had made a film called 'Innocence Lost,' about children who were exploited, abused, or neglected. Children who were kidnapped at 5 or 6 and made into camel jockeys, child prostitution in Costa Rica," said Blewett in a recent phone interview. "And during the course of making that film had a chance to study child labor...."

She points out that very often in poverty-ridden cultures children have to work hard for little pay. That's unfortunate. "But there is a real difference," Blewett says. "When children are enslaved, they are taken against their will from their families, paid nothing, controlled by violence, and worked under unbelievable conditions."

In the film Blewett and Woods track down a little boy named Huro, stolen at 6 years of age from his family and forced to work from 5 a.m. until midnight every day. He never saw daylight during his imprisonment, slept only three hours a day, was fed little, and was regularly beaten.

The filmmakers learn who took the child, and posing as carpet buyers, they invite the factory owner to their hotel room where hidden cameras could record the conversation. Too slippery for them, he sends lackeys to lie for him.

Missing for seven years, the child is recovered in a police raid with many others, but his "master" gets away - and is still at large.

Huro is one of the lucky ones. His broken spirit is on the mend in a rehabilitation center for children recovering from the effects of a particularly brutal slavery. "There are 27 [million] to 28 million slaves around the world, by conservative estimate," Blewett says. "But the difference between now and colonial times is that in the old days slaves were worth a great deal of money and so were taken better care of. But these people are utterly disposable. [Huro cost $8]. They are cheap to buy and cheap to throw away."

There are recourses, she says. Because slave labor reduces the cost of carpets (including legitimately made ones), the global economy is affected. A nonprofit watchdog agency called the Rugmark Foundation conducts surprise inspections that can shut down a factory if it finds slaves on the premises. Rugmark also operates the rehabilitation centers. And the Rugmark label on a carpet assures the buyer that no slaves were used in its manufacture.

It's a start. But what is needed is widespread labeling that will help us purchase our chocolate, glassware, brassware, gems, clothing, and a wide variety of other products safely, Blewett says. "In a global economy, this is where the power of the individual comes in." (For more information, log on to www.rugmark.org.)

***

Midseason changes bring What About Joan? (Tuesdays, ABC, starting March 27, 9:30-10 p.m.) starring one of the funniest women in America, Joan Cusack. She's had an active movie career (sometimes costarring with her brother, John), but now with a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old to spice up her life, she wants to try what many actors are finding to be a "family friendly" work environment - television.

Shot in Chicago, the show keeps Ms. Cusack near home. "It was five years ago that I first thought of doing this," she said in a recent interview. "I asked [producer] James Brooks about the possibility and he said, 'There's a serendipity to these things.' " And there was. She met writer Gwen Macsai, who was also a working Chicago mom, and Ms. Macsai came up with a show for Cusack.

Cusack plays a high school teacher whose boyfriend suddenly asks her to marry him. Awkward, hyper, and insecure, she can't compute the data he's sending her. Her women friends try to help, but the guy's too good to be true - or is he? The show is about the relationships among a tightly knit group of professionals. But Cusack says that issues facing educational institutions will surface during the course of the show.

"I wanted to play someone with integrity," she says, referring to her character as a dedicated teacher. "She's not so 'out there' in her sexuality [like some of the other characters]. She tries to shrug off her neurosis and tries to be heroic in her relationships...."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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