Slavery Got a Rebrand

Modern slavery is closer than you think.

Slavery Got a Rebrand
Art 1.: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

Have we forgotten? Was 1948 so long ago that these principles, so humanly stated, are now irrelevant?

Who can say that we respect human dignity these days after watching videos and pictures coming from Gaza, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Afghanistan, etc., etc., etc.?

People are saying that the UN is irrelevant. The problem is that nobody cares anymore about human rights and declarations. We have entered a new viva la pepa or, in English, a new barbarism [1] where the international rules are not respected anymore. Civilians’ deaths are seen as collateral damage and, while we are horrified and scandalized, governments seem to be unable or unwilling to do anything to stop the carnage. And we, let’s admit it, just go on with our lives.

But if you don’t see how much we don’t care about what the old men of the UN declaration said, you could agree that we are crossing lines that for a time were forbidden, as if the Declarations of Human Rights was too much of a naif and utopian document, a document that aspires too high for us, flawed humans. So, we are stuck here, hating each other.

Human Dignity...

I’ve seen that word floating around this week and I realize that I have a vague idea of what dignity really is, but I sense a persistent erosion of the sense of dignity, together with the erosion of other basic human rights.

The dictionary from Oxford languages says that dignity is:

1. The state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. For example, “The dignity of labor.”

We can always say, “that's happening there, not here. Here in Western Europe, we are more civilized. We respect human rights, we have laws! Right?”


This erosion is happening here in Europe too. Oh Europe, the bastion of human rights and high culture, not some third world country far away from this civilized heaven.

Well, let’s see some examples of dignity violations that are much closer to us, starting by that phrase: “The dignity of labor.”

Just this morning, in the Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, I saw two articles in which just the titles are saying quite a lot. One of the articles titled “Working hard, yet earning no more than welfare. That's not motivating, finds home help (a sort of nurse) Hannie” and the other “Richest get richer despite calamity, number of billionaires rises further to record.” (The articles are in Dutch).

Dignity of labor mi abuela.

If you read that, you can already slash off “equality” and “dignity” out of the declaration. Why is it okay for someone to be so rich as to make a thousand times more money doing nothing (gambling in the stock market) than someone else by doing necessary work, such as helping people who need it? Nurses were called heroes during the pandemic! Equality and dignity are just empty words when these differences are so obvious.

Home helpers are mostly freelancers or self-employed in this country. Not because they want to but because almost all jobs offered as home helper are self-employed. You can find very few companies that will make a contract for you. The same thing happens to music teachers, my job, these days. Most of the music schools hire you as freelancer. Only if you can get a job at a professional conservatory paid for the state you can get a contract, but good luck with that. Those jobs are only a small percentage of the total number of music teacher jobs in the country. And in that sector, the freelance and self-employed, is where the abuses occur.

Labor has lost its dignity.

All the gains of the workers’ unions of the previous centuries, such as the 8-hour workday, paid holidays, sick days, right to compensation when there is a work accident… all those rights won through hard work, are gone. And I am not talking about a third-world county with deficits and 40% poverty level like Argentina, for example. I am talking about The Netherlands, whose economy is the 18th of the world. Wikipedia says: “ Its GDP per capita at purchasing power parity was estimated at $72,973 in the fiscal year 2023, which makes it one of the highest-earning nations in the world.”

In such a rich and privileged country, you would think, they would have no problems respecting workers rights and the dignity of the human being.

Well, no.

“Modern slavery is closer than you think” I read on the home page of the website “Slavery is not something from the distant past or something that only happens in poor, remote countries or in history books. Slavery is closer than you might think. Slavery also exists in the Netherlands.”

Last week the NPO news, the public channel here in The Netherlands, aired a news segment about how the labor migrants in this country are causing havoc in the laying of the fiber glass for the Internet. Sometimes, they open gas pipes accidentally, and they leave them open.

Because of the repeated accidents, the news program Nieuwsuur, did an investigation and found that many of the workers are from Rumania, even from Georgia. They come here with fake promises of great jobs and wages, which they discover once they are already here and signed contracts that are all lies: they put them to sleep in sheds, they have to work for 14 hours to get the job done and get paid, in places with no access to toilets or cover in rainy days, the promised wages are actually about half, or less, and most of the times, they live so far from the place where they work that they have to get up at 4 in the morning to be able to get to work on time. Many of them end up going back to their countries without a penny, or homeless in the woods when they lose their living place because they lost their jobs.

There has been an increase in temporary or flexible employment agencies because they are gold mines. Instead of hiring someone for a full-time job, with a contract and benefits, you know, old fashion, now they use the flex worker system, meaning that they hire you as a freelancer or self-employed. But you are not really a freelancer. You cannot choose your working hours or set the price for your services. It's a fake construction because you still have to work the same hours than the full-time employee, doing the same thing, but you have no rights, no health insurance, if you have an accident, too bad for you, the employer, because he is not your employer, you are freelance, the middleman that hired you has no responsibility. You broke your leg on the job? Too bad. Can't work for six months due to your work accident? Your problem.

The problem is not only with fiber glass workers. I have a friend that works in construction and recently was in a job with a group of men from Azerbaijan. Same thing. They even don’t have the required VCA (safety certificate) for it. Or, no, sorry, I am wrong. They have it but it is fake. They paid 12 euros for it, while my friend had to do the course and pay 165 euros to get it. And if the worker gets paid 11 euros an hour, his “manager” or “agent” gets around 70 euros for that worker per hour. It is the middleman’s wet dream. 

Forget about the dignity of labor. Capitalism needs slavery to satisfy its constant thirst for growth. And even if slavery is forbidden, there are other ways, mostly economical, to make people slaves than shackling their ankles.

In the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it says:

“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind…”

Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts that Outraged the conscience of mankind. Maybe they outraged the conscience of just one part of humankind or maybe, that was a while ago and now the conscience has recuperated itself and it is ready to be outraged again… or, maybe there is no more human conscience to outrage?

That is the revolution: to become humans again and recuperate our dignity. To see each other as equals, and as the Declaration says: act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

[1] The article linked that mentions “new barbarism” is from 2017 and it is specifically about health care and humanitarian workers in conflict zones. I think if it received an update today with the new conflicts, we could agree that the situation has worsened.

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