LABOUR DAY BLUES: We read of struggle and liberation in 'Roots' years ago, but 'Kunta Kinte' is still bound, and in our midst
THREE days ago the world offered a deep bow to labour as if it was an emperor, and a noble light fell brightly on all those who worked.
But on the outer edge of the throne room, a certain breed of workers with meagre bodies dwelled, and at this place the rays weakened and darkness grew broad and long, and this made them feel quite alone and fearful.
These people are the slaves of the 21st century.
"What?" you exclaim. "Slaves do not walk the earth any more!"
Surely, then, you are living on a plateau in a high mountain somewhere breathing in pleasure like opium and watching one popcorn movie after another.
I do not castigate lightly. A short time ago, a reader, K, entered into correspondence with me about my annoyance at homosexual marriage and slavery. He said: "Thanks for writing about slavery being abolished but it would be braver of you to acknowledge that more people in the world today are in slavery than at any time in history and many are right under your noses..."
Oh dear! He is probably right. While no country wants to be seen as giving sanction and succour to slavery, it has found a way to survive, and thrive. Because it derives life from the greed and wickedness and foolishness of man which no law can hope to completely contain.
But the law is of some help. Three years after the American Civil War ended slavery, China entered into an 'equal treaty' with the United States which protected Chinese immigrants to America... Before the treaty in 1868, the Chinese, who worked as labourers on the railroad and in the mines, suffered great abuse and humiliation. Jung Chang, writing on the reformer, Empress Dowager Cixi, quotes Mark Twain: "I have seen Chinamen abused and maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible to the invention of a degraded nature, but I never saw a policeman interfere in the matter and I never saw a Chinaman righted in the courts of justice for wrongs thus done him."
So it was that after 1868 the burden of living was not as heavy for the Chinese in America. But prejudices and hostility remained entrenched in the minds of the resident population. One hundred and forty-six years later, I am not entirely persuaded the volcano that spewed venom is alive no longer.
And one hundred and forty-six years later as K sadly points out, "young girls arrive as virgins, full of hope and spend the first week raped and beaten and then fall into a life of slavery, complacency and lies. The threat always that their parents and village neighbours will be told that they are prostitutes if they escape... Well unfortunately to a girl in Vietnam or Myanmar promised US$500 a month to work in a hairdresser's they just believe it".
Many pictures of these hapless young women have I seen, taken by colleagues during raids by the authorities on this joint and that. They are someone's mother, daughter or sister; pseudopuritans condemn them, criminals lay them out like meat and consumers of news treat them like, well, another item on the evening bulletin.
And the rest of us? We think of them as fodder for jokes, or we blame the enforcers for the state of affairs, or we ignore them. We may as well bind them in chains ourselves.
My own experience paints another dreadful picture of the extent of human depravity. At a restaurant I used to frequent, I learned belatedly that the workers, all from abroad, were made to sleep on the hard tables after the last diners had left. The businessman probably had it in mind to save some money, but not to save his employees from some hardship, even at the time of rest.
I came to know that the workers were resigned to their fate, labouring seven days a week from dawn to the witching hour for that few extra ringgit. They were aliens in this land, not alien to their rights. But little did they understand.
Now, they are all gone, to home and family, or to another enslaving existence.
It is beyond the compass of this space to make recompense to these workers or those women, or to lay out all the filthy facets of modern-day slavery. Or to make known all the actors, whether in authority or not, who perform on such a disgusting stage.
But I am moved by the anti-slavery champion, William Wilberforce, to finally leave you with this:
Who is the emperor, who also is slave?
On Labour Day, the question returns anew,
Can people tell with eyes brave,
When brightness blinds all but few.
David Christy | email@example.com New Straits Times Columnist 04 May 2014