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Meet today's UU abolitionists

Four Unitarian Universalist groups confront modern slavery.
By Kimberly French
November/December 2004 11.1.04

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UU Holdeen India Program

Twenty-five years ago, not long after Vivek and Vidyullata Pandit moved to the small Indian village of Dahisar to organize preschool classes, health care, and income projects, Vidyullata Pandit asked some young men why they didn't come to evening sports practices. Their answer shocked her: They were not free to come.

The young men were in bonded servitude, working to repay debts owed to the landlord for their marriages. It turned out that everyone in the village's tribal caste was a bonded laborer. The Pandits' view of the poor but idyllic rural village was shattered. Vivek soon discovered that his own uncle held laborers in bonded servitude.

The Pandits have worked ever since to free debt slaves in their country.

Bonded servitude is illegal in India, but the villagers didn't know that. The Pandits' idea was simple but radical: They told the villagers that they could be free, that they could walk away.

“Freedom is an expensive thing,” Vivek Pandit said at the UUA 's 2003 General Assembly, “but. . . only the bonded laborers can pay the price. They alone must gather courage from the depths of their being and say no. . . Buying them back from the master is disastrous,” he adds, “as it encourages the master to keep more slaves. The only answer to bonded labor is organizing the slaves to demand the freedom that is already theirs by law.”

In 1979 the Pandits founded Vidhayah Sansad, an organization that offers training and support to bonded laborers.

In 1982 they founded Shramajeevi Sanghatana, a union that organizes bonded laborers to demand basic human rights—first freedom, then the land they've worked for, a minimum wage, and schools for their children.

The two organizations are among the eighty grassroots partner organizations that the Unitarian Universalist Holdeen India Program, an arm of the UUA funded by trusts set up in the 1940s
by Jonathan Holdeen, has supported with funding and organizational development over two decades.

In recent years, freed slaves helped by Holdeen partner groups have risen to leadership positions in their communities—a rarity in the developing world that fills the Pandits with pride. Anita Dhangda, who was born into a bonded family, was elected in 2003 as a district representative in Maharashtra state. Pandit has turned the union's leadership over to Keshav Nankar, who was taken out of school at age seven to help repay his father's debt and forced to work fourteen hours a day with one meal until he said no twenty years ago. Today the union has 100,000 members and has helped 6,000 slaves gain freedom.

Contact the UU Holdeen India Program, 1320 18 th St. N.W., Suite 300b , Washington DC 20036; ( 202 ) 296-4672 x 16; holdeen@aol.com. Donations earmarked for antislavery work will be sent directly to grassroots groups in India.


Unitarian Universalists Against Slavery

Barney Freiberg-Dale remembers the moment he learned that slavery still existed, and was in fact widespread throughout the world, as one of the most shocking of his life, similar to the news of President Kennedy's assassination or the 9/11 attacks. He has turned that shock into activism, founding Unitarian Universalists Against Slavery (UUAS) two years ago.

With about 90 members, the UUA-related organization's focus is to raise awareness about modern slavery. “The light of day is the best weapon,” says Freiberg-Dale, a member of the First Unitarian Society of Newton, Massachusetts. UUAS submitted modern slavery as a proposed Study-Action Issue at the 2002 and 2003 General Assemblies, and it was one of five finalists in 2002. The group also assists UU congregations in putting together services, educational events, and social-action projects.

An antislavery workshop at the 2003 General Assembly galvanized Matthew Kesner, a college student and youth adviser for two congregations on Long Island, New York. In the last year, he has created an independent-study course for himself on slavery, written a pamphlet, and organized antislavery workshops and forums for church, school, and camp groups.

“When I first started researching, I asked, ‘What can I do?' and people said spread the word,” says Kesner, who plans to study for the ministry. “I've adopted it as my lifelong issue—to address the most dire need of society, people held against their will in slavery with torture.”


UUSC-EarthRights partnership

The military government that took over Burma in 1988 has come under continual international condemnation for its horrific human-rights abuses—among them enslaving its own citizens as forced laborers. Under threat of torture and without pay, villagers are forced to build roads, railways, pipelines, and other projects. Boys as young as eleven are routinely kidnapped and given the choice of jail or fighting in the military that brutally controls the populace.

Ka Hsaw Wa, who was tortured and kidnapped into the army as a boy, escaped his captors and went on to cofound EarthRights International, a partner organization of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) that advocates for human rights in Southeast Asia. He spoke at the 2004 General Assembly about the testimonies of forced-labor victims he has collected.

Two multinational corporations have benefited from Burmese forced labor: U.S.-based Unocal and French-based Total, which are building a natural-gas pipeline across the country the dictatorship now calls Myanmar. The army agreed to supply security for the $1.2-billion joint venture and has forced citizens to carry supplies, clear land, and build roads and helicopter pads.

“Wherever the pipeline was going, the military press-ganged people into forced labor,” UUSC president Charlie Clements says. “They raped many women. They would hunt down and murder anyone who resisted in any way, and forced villagers to provide food for the military and garrison them.”

EarthRights sued Unocal for permitting the human-rights abuses committed on its behalf, citing the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act. Two courts have ruled that the corporation knew about and benefited from the Burmese government's practices, but the case continues on appeal.

This year, the UUSC has urged congregations to study the Burmese human-rights crisis for its Justice Sunday and mobilized members to contact the president and Congress. In partnership with EarthRights, the UUSC has given grants to Burmese organizations to document abuses. It has also sent its staff to teach there and brought Burmese activists to speak in this country.


UUA Committee on Socially Responsible Investing

Rather than getting rid of the stock of badly behaving corporations, social-change groups have started buying it—at least enough shares so that they qualify to present shareholder resolutions for a vote at corporations' annual meetings. The UUA and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee have filed shareholder resolutions, with other members of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, to ask companies to ensure that there is no slavery in their supply chains.

It's a strategy that requires “the patience of a snake,” says Jim Gunning, a retired business consultant who serves on both the UUA and UUSC investing committees. In most cases management opposes the resolutions—and controls the most shares. So the resolutions typically get a very small percentage of the vote. The Securities and Exchange Commission allows resolutions to be submitted if they get at least 3 percent of the vote the first year, 6 percent the second, and 10 percent the third. Once an issue gets 20 percent or more, most boards start to take it seriously.

The denomination has had some successes. The UUA cofiled a resolution with the New York City Employees' Retirement System (NYCERS) asking the H.J. Heinz Corporation to adopt a global code of conduct. In response, Heinz agreed in 2002 to improve auditing of its foreign contractors.

Exxon Mobil and Unocal have responded favorably to resolutions cofiled by the UUSC . Last April, Exxon Mobil agreed to adopt International Labor Organization principles that bar slave labor and to meet every six months with the resolution's principal filers, the AFL-CIO and Amnesty International. In March 2003 , Unocal agreed to a new global code of conduct.

With a modest number of stocks, the UUA can file only so many resolutions. But recently it has combined one of its assets—an easily mobilized membership, spread across the country—with NYCERS, which has billions of dollars of stocks in thousands of corporations and a membership based in New York. So UU ministers and laypeople have gone before shareholders of Exxon Mobil, WalMart, Walt Disney, StrideRite, Home Depot, and other corporations, asking them on behalf of NYCERS to adopt principles that guarantee their products are not slave-made.

“NYCERS is able to file more resolutions,” Gunning says, “and we are able to provide witness on social issues at annual meetings nationwide through our network of congregations. Our local people love it.”


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