Haiti's child slaves land country high on new global slavery index

The global slavery index considers Haitian children sent to live with wealthier families and serve as household servants – a common practice – modern-day slaves. 

Slavery is alive and thriving, a new report says. 

But many of the 29 million modern day slaves might challenge your concept of who is a slave. It might be an indebted laborer, a victim of human trafficking, or, in the case of Haiti, the child working in the kitchen.

Walk Free Foundation used an expanded definition of slavery to produce what it says is a first-of-its-kind look at the practice in the modern world.

“It would be comforting to think that slavery is a relic of history, but it remains a scar on humanity on every continent,” says Nick Grono, CEO the Australia-based foundation that produced the Global Slavery Index 2013, the first of a planned annual publication. 

Nearly half of the world’s slaves live in India. But the index ranked 162 countries according to the percentage of enslaved people in the general population. Western Africa’s Mauritania, Haiti and Pakistan had the three highest rates of slavery, respectively, according to the index.

While Mauritania’s 140,000 to 160,000 enslaved people fit more closely with the historical perception of who is a slave, Haiti provides a different face to the practice.

Haiti’s 200,000 to 220,000 enslaved people are mostly children who live with families not their own, working as household servants in the Caribbean country’s complex and long-standing restavèk system.

Under restavèk (a Haitian creole word derived from French meaning “one who stays with”), poor, often rural, families send their children to live with a family of better means, usually in urban areas. The children are sent with the understanding that the family will clothe, feed, quarter, and educate them in exchange for their work.  

But inside the homes, “many of these children suffer the cruelest form of neglect – denied food, water, a bed to sleep in, and constant physical and emotional abuse,” the report says. 

The group estimates that between 300,000 and 500,000 children are in a similar circumstance, according to information it gathered on the ground. It is unclear why they counted some, but not all, restavèk children as slaves.

In compiling the index, researchers defined slavery as “the possession and control of a person … with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer, or disposal.” 

Some have argued against defining slavery so broadly, based in part on its historic significance.

In The Haitian Times last year, columnist Max Joseph wrote, “For Haitians, or any member of the African Diaspora for that matter, the word ‘slavery’ is distinctively associated with the transatlantic slave trade in which millions of Africans were forcibly uprooted from their villages and sold like domesticated animals in faraway lands.

“The notion of associating the restavèk phenomenon with slavery is a naked attempt at trivializing one of the most grotesque episodes in human history,” Mr. Joseph wrote. 

In its report, the foundation says it’s important to focus on “hidden” enslaved people, such as restavèk children. 

“Since hidden slaves can’t be counted it is easy to pretend they don’t exist. The Index aims to change that,” Kevin Bales, the lead researcher on the index, said in a statement.

Countries with the five highest rates of slavery:

  1. Mauritania
  2. Haiti
  3. Pakistan
  4. India
  5. Nepal

*The United States ranked No. 134 of 162

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