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Who is a slave?

Slavery in contemporary usage covers a variety of conditions of involuntary servitude.

In the most rigid sense, a slave is human chattel, the legal property of someone else.

As slavery is more loosely defined today, a slave is any victim helpless in the presence of a dominating influence.

The most common form of slavery today, particularly in India, is debt bondage, in which a person pledges to work to pay off a loan but the terms of the payment are unclear, and the debt, in fact, never disappears.

Contract slavery, also common today, particularly in Asia, involves a contract for employment, but the worker is actually paid little or nothing and has no freedom.

Governments noted for human rights violations, such as Burma, may enslave people for war or public labor.

Britain’s Channel 4 television, in a booklet published last year to accompany a documentary focusing on international slave trade used the definition: unpaid, controlled by violence or the threat of violence, unable to leave.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed by the U.S. Congress last October, relies on the word “victims” to carry its legal weight. The United State has had laws against “involuntary servitude” on its books since the late 19th century.

In criminal cases against “slavery” or “involuntary servitude” in this country, prosecutors pull out every charge they can find, using a variety of laws ranging from harboring illegal aliens to paying less than minimum wage.

-- Arthur Jones

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001