By Lisa Goldman  

There are over 40.5 million people living in slavery. This astonishing number serves as an entry point for the series of films in the documentary series Why Slavery? Each one-hour episode explores a different form of modern slavery through the lens of the individuals deprived of their freedom and forced into unpaid labour, by an entrenched system that destroys lives while helping to fuel the global economy.

Modern-day slaves include:

  • Trafficked women, such as Yazidi women of Iraq who were bought and sold by ISIS as sex slaves
  • Children, sold by their impoverished parents into bonded labour, which is common in India
  • Citizens of North Korea who are pressed into labour to serve the state, with their wages going to the government rather than their pockets
  • Women coming from poor countries in Africa and Asia to work in the Middle East who find themselves trapped by employers, abused and denied their wages.
The Why Project: ‘The Red Cross of Media’

The Why Project Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Copenhagen headed by Mette Hoffman-Meyer, an acclaimed international documentary film producer. She and her small staff produce and distribute 30 films annually on social justice subjects for broadcast all over the world.

Mette Hoffman-Meyer was the Head of Documentaries and Co-Productions at the Danish public service broadcaster Danmarks Radio for thirty years. She retired two years ago to co-found and lead The Why Project, which she calls “The Red Cross of Media.”

Hoffman-Meyer takes no salary from The Why Foundation, noting that the films she produces have been distributed at no charge in locations as far-flung as Mongolia and Albania. The Foundation, meanwhile, has won prestigious awards like the Peabody for its films, which have raised awareness on subjects like democracy and poverty.

Maid in Hell, domestic servants trapped in the Middle East

When Maid in Hell, the Why Slavery? episode that documents the trade in and abuse of domestic servants in the Middle East, received a 25 percent market share of viewers when it was broadcast on Danish television.

“People had no idea that slavery existed,” Hoffmann-Meyer said. They thought, she added, that contemporary slavery was a minor issue that referred to “just a few trafficked women.” They did not know that hundreds of thousands of women work as domestic servants in the Middle East under conditions that so brutal that incidents of women committing suicide are not uncommon.

Maid in Hell tells the stories of the women who come to the Middle East under the Kafala system, by which local agents import unskilled foreign workers from poor countries like Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Kenya to work as construction workers, drivers, and domestic servants. The women who work as maids have no particular qualifications for domestic service except, as one commenter in the film notes, “desperation and a passport.”

Once they arrive in the Middle East, the employer confiscates their passports and often takes their mobile phones as well. Cut off from the outside world, they are extremely vulnerable to abuse — particularly as there are almost no laws that punish employers who abuse their workers.

Stories about maids who are confined to their employer’s home, refused a day off and denied their wages, as they are mentally and physically abused, are reported with alarming frequency. But many factors contribute to the perpetuation of this situation.

For those who do receive their wages, the incentive to remain is strong, even in these unfavourable conditions. Money that foreign workers from poor countries send home to their families comes to an estimated $429 billion (US) of the world economy, with women who work as domestic servants contributing 50 per cent of that amount. In many cases, the governments of the poor countries cannot afford to take diplomatic action against the richer countries that abuse their citizens. They rely on the remittance money to fuel their economies.

Slavery is an integral part of the world economy

Mette Hoffmann-Meyer said the idea for the Why Slavery series came to her and her colleagues when they launched their previous series, Why Poverty, at the UN General Assembly (UNGA). “President Obama spoke about modern slavery in an extraordinary speech for the Clinton Foundation,” she said. “And I thought that if he spent 40 minutes talking to Bill Gates and senior executives from Goldman Sachs, then this was something worth researching.”

She was amazed to discover that slavery was “huge, systemic and part of the international business structure.” In her opinion, the number 40.5 million is conservative. “I think the number [of people in slavery] is much higher,” she said.

But the high numbers are not, says Hoffman-Meyer, an indication that slavery is more common now than it was a century or two ago. “I don’t think it’s more pervasive now,” she said. “I think it’s been there all the time, but we have not focused on it.”

“I think we just don’t know that whatever we buy, there is some slavery involved in the production line." Slaves produce the things we wear and use and eat, she pointed out — whether it be children who are sold by their parents to pick fruit and cocoa beans, or enslaved by militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine columbite and tantalum, the essential elements that make our iPhones work.

Slaves could be the restaurant workers who wash the dishes or chop the vegetables, working for no wages to pay off the smugglers who brought them to Canada. They could be sweatshop workers in places like Bangladesh, who sew our clothes for wages that barely cover basic needs, even as they are beaten by their employers and forced to work overtime without pay. Hoffmann-Meyer added: “I believe that information is vital. If we don’t know things, we cannot act.”

Watch Why Slavery? online.