More than 150 years after traditional slavery was abolished in much of the Western world, fresh evidence has emerged that a modern form of slavery exists in many Western countries.
The discovery of three alleged cases of slave-keeping in London within the past few weeks has focused attention on the little-known phenomenon of domestic slavery, which usually passes unnoticed because it occurs behind the closed doors of seemingly respectable homes.
Its victims, according to London-based slavery experts, are girls and women from third world countries who are brought to the West as domestic servants and then deprived of their pay and their freedom.
Sometimes, more devious methods of contracting slave labor are used. The Anti-Slavery Society, the world's oldest human rights organization, says some employers purchase girls from families living in abject poverty and ''import'' them to the West with false adoption papers.
A man who has made a lifetime study of slavery, Col. Patrick Montgomery, says there is a vast pool of women in the third world willing to work as domestics in the West in the hope of a better life and as a means of supporting their families.
Colonel Montgomery, former secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society, says, ''People who are kept as slaves generally come from very poor backgrounds and tend to believe they will live better with their new masters than at home. What they do not realize is that they will be used as domestic drudges, will lose their freedom, and may be beaten or sexually abused.''
There could be hundreds, perhaps thousands of women kept as domestic slaves. But the experts say there is no way of finding out or of tackling the problem systematically. As Colonel Montgomery puts it, ''What evidence we have has been discovered purely by chance. It is probably no more than the tip of the iceberg.''
As in most instances of modern-day slavery, the three cases currently under investigation in Britain came to light only when the servants could no longer stand their mistreatment and decided to flee.
Two weeks ago, two Arab women living in the same household in London's Bayswater district were charged with causing grievous bodily harm to two women servants, one from India and one from Sri Lanka. Police were called in after the Sri Lankan, Samsul Aniffa, escaped from her employers long enough to seek help from the owners of a nearby restaurant. She said she had been tortured by her employers, with whom she had signed a two-year contract. A Scotland Yard spokesman later said that both she and her fellow servant had whiplash and burn injuries.
Just a few days earlier, a Filipino woman called May turned up on the doorstep of the Rev. Jack Dennehy, an Irish priest who runs the Filipino Chaplaincy - a religious and social center for the Filipino community in London. Bruised and fearful, she had no possessions except the clothes she wore.
She, too, was on a two-year contract. But on taking up her post a year ago she found herself a virtual prisoner. Her passport was confiscated by her Arab employer. She worked a 20-hour day, had to eat leftovers, slept on blankets on the floor, and was almost never allowed out of the house.
Fr. Dennehy says that over the past year more than 90 women with similar stories have sought his help. In his office is a filing cabinet crammed with cases marked ''not solved.'' And for every example known to Fr. Dennehy, antislavery agencies working in London can offer another.
A London charity, the Migrant Workers' Unit, which investigates domestic slavery in Britain, says it is repeatedly finding new cases of slave-keeping by wealthy private individuals. It has a dossier of more than a dozen uncovered in the past two years. Its spokesman, Jonathan Walters, says:
''At first we thought we were dealing with a handful of isolated cases. But it has become clear that they reflect a whole pattern of exploitation.''
Although the employers of both Samsul and May were Arab, antislavery researchers stress that employers of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds are guilty of similar abuses. Nor is the practice of keeping ''slaves'' by any means exclusive to Britain and the Middle East. Similar reports of domestic slavery have come from Washington, New York, Geneva, and, more recently, France.
It is rare for those who keep domestic slaves to be brought to justice. Slaves who manage to escape often fail to contact the authorities for fear of being deported. In several cases known to the Anti-Slavery Society the ''owners'' are third world officials, protected by diplomatic immunity.
The Migrant Workers' Unit is currently campaigning for a change in British law that would end the exploitation of domestic servants from overseas. In the long term, it plans to extend its campaign well beyond British shores.
''This is a worldwide problem,'' Walters says. ''We must have international cooperation to regulate the appalling traffic in innocent human beings.''