The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, December 29, 2008

Enslaved by Free Markets

The Associated Press ran a horrifying story this morning about domestic child labor (i.e. child slavery) that sounds like something out of a Nineteenth Century novel by Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo.

Nine-year-old Shyima Mahmoud lived with her parents and ten siblings in the poor Egyptian coastal town of Agami. When her father became sick and lost his job, her mother “sold” Shyima as a maid to a wealthy family, the Ibrahims.

For a salary of $45 per month, Shyima worked up to twenty hours each day, without breaks or any time off, cleaning the family’s Cairo apartment and caring for their five children. When the family moved to the United States and settled in California, Shyima went with them. Her family was indebted to the Ibrahims, having acquired multiple loans from them to pay for the father’s ongoing medical expenses.

The Ibrahims lived in what was literally a small mansion. Shyima lived in a garage without windows, heat and air conditioning, or lighting.

She was completely de-humanized. Her employers referred to her only as shaghala or “servant” rather than by her given name. She washed her hand-me-down clothes in a bucket because the Ibrahims considered them too dirty to mix with those of their own.

The family took her along on a vacation to Disneyland – where they forbade the now ten-year-old girl to ride any of the attractions and instead required her to carry the family’s baggage.

It took two long years but eventually neighbors became suspicious of a girl they sometimes saw through the windows of the Ibrahims’ house but who was never mentioned by them. They called the police and social services.

Authorities placed Shyima in foster homes and a loving family eventually adopted her. A federal court ordered the Ibrahims to pay Shyima $76,000, the amount she would have earned at minimum wage. It sentenced the couple to several years in prison and deported them after each had served their respective jail time.

Although it is officially illegal, child slavery is both commonplace and socially acceptable in at least thirty-three African countries. The practice has begun to proliferate here in America as affluent Africans, accustomed to employing children, immigrate to the United States. A study by the National Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley and Free the Slaves, a nonprofit group, suggests they may number in the thousands within this country.

It is all outrageous and deplorable but perhaps most shocking is the attitude of parents regarding the fate of their children. Traffickers have not tricked them into thinking minors face anything less than endless, backbreaking toil. Nor are parents sadly resigned to the practice.

On the contrary, many see themselves as doing a wonderful thing for their children by selling them into servitude. What most of us would view as cruel and abusive treatment, they view as opportunity. When facing a life of abject poverty and hopelessness, hard labor and separation from parents in exchange for food, clothing, shelter, and even a salary seems an almost luxurious alternative.

As the AP article states, “. . . the garage where Shyima slept . . . would pass for the best home in [her family’s] neighborhood.” When shown a snapshot of the windowless garage, Shyima’s mother “made a clucking sound of approval” rather than gasping in horror.

Shyima refused to admit anything against the Ibrahims at first but eventually her fear of them turned to anger and she ultimately testified at their trials. For this, she earned estrangement from her parents, who told her anything bad that had happened to her was her fault and she was shaming them by speaking out against “good people.”

Such a reaction is sadly all too common from African families. In a similar case, the mother of a Cameroon girl flew to Detroit to testify in court against her own daughter, saying the child was “ungrateful” for the “good life” her employers had provided her.

Shyima, now seventeen, admits she never attempted to run away from the Ibrahims and their treatment of her because, at the time, “I thought this was normal.”

The cautionary tale I see in all this is the danger of globalization to bring down all to the lowest common denominator, especially in matters regarding money.

In truth, Shyima’s tale is most shocking to us not because it involves slavery or even a child but because it happened right here on U.S. soil. If Shymia’s family forced her to work as hard to benefit a California couple without leaving Egypt, some would laud the situation as a triumph of free trade. If a mature Shyima came to the U.S. voluntarily seeking work to help her struggling family, many would join in condemning her as an “ungrateful immigrant” when she complained about her situation.

When a huge gap is allowed to develop between haves and have-nots, such as exists in Egypt and is rapidly occurring in this country, it is extraordinary both how much wealth can manipulate poverty to its will and how much the impoverished are willing to accept for how little return. We saw the same thing in this country’s Nineteenth Century factory sweatshops. It led us to permit organized labor and federal regulation over industries.

Are we really going to continue taking steps backwards because markets dictate lowest cost equals the lowest accepted standard of living as the only way to compete?

It sounds ridiculous but Congresspersons who insisted that an auto industry bailout should not go forward without first busting the UAW might disagree with imprisoning the Ibrahims as the correct solution to Shyima’s situation. Instead, they might insist that every adult maid in the U.S. be willing to work for what any African child would accept (or forced to accept by their parents), less they risk losing their jobs to “smarter, harder-working, more competitive” overseas labor.

The free market may have an invisible self-correcting hand but it has no conscience. It is not the job of government to give everybody a free ride but it should protect “the little guys” from abuses power by wealth, exercised through economic means. You see, sometime “the little guys” are not fat, lazy, overpaid Detroit autoworker. Sometimes “the little guys” are little girls and we owe the Shyimas of this world more than they have gotten from free trade so far.

This nation needs to fight for better regulation over domestic child labor all over this planet, just as we abolished the practice of factory child labor within our own borders a century ago. America needs to lead within the global economy, not enslave ourselves to its worst impulses for lowest-cost goods.

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