With her cherubic face, purple T-shirt and jeans, Mukda looks like a fairly typical 14-year-old from the rural areas of Thailand. She stands barely 4 1/2 feet tall and giggles bashfully when asked a personal question.
Until police rescued her in late July, Mukda was a slave.
Eight months earlier, she had been brought to Bangkok from her village near the Myanmar border and sold to a brothel by her stepfather.
Every night, seven days a week, Mukda was forced to sleep with five or six men. The $1 per customer she earned was written down in a ledger, to be offset against the amount paid to her stepfather.
Mukda was never allowed to leave the brothel, kept imprisoned behind a barbed-wire fence with a constant threat of beatings. When a Times reporter found her during a police raid, she was curled up with 23 other girls on a foul-smelling floor of what looked like a stall in a stable.
“I want to go back to my village,” she said in a tiny voice. “I’m afraid.”
Slavery. It sounds like a relic of the distant past, a dinosaur of human behavior found in dramas like “Roots” and “Gone with the Wind.” But more than a century after Lincoln freed the slaves in America, slavery in various forms is still widespread in the developing world.
“People in the West are told in school that slavery was abolished long ago, but sadly there are more slaves now than ever before,” said Alan Whittaker, a spokesman for Anti-Slavery International, a London-based group founded in 1839 to fight the traffic in slaves from Africa.
“Today’s slaves are not made by iron chains, they are made by debt and exploitation,” Whittaker said in a telephone interview.
These days, it is relatively rare to find old forms of slavery in which people are sold at auction. So the focus of current anti-slavery efforts is aimed at ending the practice of bonded labor, where a worker spends years struggling to repay a debt, and the exploitation of child labor at little or no wages.
Forced labor is prohibited by a United Nations convention, as is hazardous work for children under 18 and most other jobs for children under 15. Throughout the developing world, child laborers are prized for working cheap and raising few objections to their working conditions.
The worst examples of existing slavery are in India, where there are an estimated 5 million people working in bonded labor, mainly in agricultural jobs. Although the practice has been outlawed since 1976, the law is apparently rarely enforced.
Poor farm workers have no assets, so when they need to borrow money for medicine, a funeral or other emergencies, they have to mortgage their labor. The practice is common in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well.
“They live in hovels like animals. Once they get into the hands of unscrupulous landlords, it’s almost impossible to get out,” said Swami Agnivesh, head of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front in New Delhi.
The debts, often as little as $25, can nonetheless take up to 50 years to pay off because of usurious interest rates. Some debts are even passed from generation to generation--Agnivesh said his group had seen cases of seventh- or eighth-generation descendants working to pay off loans.
In addition, an estimated 55 million children are working in conditions approaching bondage in garages and small factories making rugs, matches and glass. They work for as little as 40 cents a week.
In one town in Tamil Nadu province, for example, 45,000 children work 15 to 16 hours a day making phosphorous matches and fireworks in conditions which are filthy and, because of the possibility of fire, dangerous, according to Whittaker.
Other examples of slavery and labor exploitation given by Anti-Slavery International:
* In the Sudan, slavery in the old style emerged four years ago when raids took place between the Muslim north and the Christian south of the country. Boys are sold as shepherds and girls as domestic workers for about $15 each.
* In West Africa, there’s a booming trade in children sold as domestic servants. In Latin America, a form of false adoption exists in which poor children are adopted into families to serve as maids and servants without pay other than their food.
* In China, where the poor cannot afford the dowry to get married, women are kidnaped and sold to poor farmers as wives. In Nepal, children are abducted to be sold as laborers or prostitutes.
* Pakistan has a huge brick industry that employs thousands of bonded laborers to make clay bricks by baking them in the sun. The laborers include women and children, some of whom are even chained to the ground as they work.
* In places such as Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh, thousands of child laborers are used in the textile industry.
* In Colombia and Peru, young children are used in dangerous jobs working in mines. Street children in Brazil are rounded up and exploited by unscrupulous employers, who call youngsters “little airplanes” because they work as drug runners.
* In Italy, half a million children are used to make women’s dress shoes in basement workshops around Naples.
In Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand, children are exploited on a wide scale even as the countries grow wealthier with industrialization.
“I’m sad to say that in my country we still have slavery even though it’s been more than 100 years since King Rama V abolished the practice,” said Khunying Kanitha Wichiencharoen, who runs Bangkok’s Emergency Home for Distressed Women and Children. “In some rural villages, there are no girls. Some have become domestics, others work in factories, but most have gone to the sex industry.”
Although there are no official statistics, up to 1 million women are thought to be employed as prostitutes in Thailand’s huge sex business, which thrives despite a legal prohibition against prostitution and an age of sexual consent of 18 years. Brothels prominently advertise in newspapers with pictures of young child prostitutes.
Sanphasit Koompraphant, who heads the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights in Bangkok, said families in northern Thailand have recently started to celebrate the birth of a daughter, which is unusual practice in male-dominated Asian societies. The reason: certain knowledge that female offspring can be sold to brothels in 10 years’ time.
In fact, he said, many of those selling their children are former prostitutes who have returned home and started families.
“Souls are destroyed in brothels after 15 years,” he said. “They have no idea in their brain what is right or wrong.”
According to Sanphasit, while labor agents formerly traveled to rural areas buying young girls under pretenses that they would be working as maids or waitresses, parents have become so emboldened by greed that they now bring their children for sale directly to the brothels.
So huge is the demand for prostitutes that slavery agents are forced to comb Thailand’s impoverished neighbors of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos for girls to buy.
Khunying Kanitha of the Bangkok Emergency Home said she recently intervened in a case in which a Thai teen-age girl traveling by bus was kidnaped and sold to a brothel. When her brother went to the police for assistance, he was told that only a parent could make a complaint about kidnaping. Meanwhile, the girl was forced to keep working in the brothel.
At the Bangkok Emergency Home, a Times reporter met two women recently freed from a brothel in the outlying town of Ranong. Both women were ethnic Burmese who spoke only a smattering of Thai.
One girl, Toto, was 22 years old. A labor agent came to her village along the border with Myanmar and paid her parents, saying he had a good job available washing dishes in a restaurant. Only later did Toto realize that she was being sold to a brothel.
When Toto discovered what was happening four months ago, the pimp who ran the brothel beat her into submission. She is now pregnant.
Neither Toto nor her companion, who spent nine months in the brothel, received any money for their labor. They were given food and slept on the floor.
Thailand’s national Police Crime Suppression Unit has recently started raiding brothels to free women being held against their will. In 20 raids since March, more than 200 girls have been freed, according to Col. Bancha Charuchareet, the head of the police unit. In every group, Bancha says, there are girls between 11 and 13.
Bancha explained that his unit can only raid brothels after a complaint is made, either from an escaped prostitute or the parents of kidnaped children who miraculously learn where they are being held. Without a complaint, Bancha said, he could take no action because control of brothels was a matter for local police.
Sex slavery has also expanded abroad--there have been a number of cases of Thai women lured to work in Japan as waitresses or nannies who were forced to become prostitutes. A Thai man was arrested in New Zealand recently when he sold a Thai girl to undercover police officers for $1,770.
According to Sanphasit of the Center for Protection of Children’s Rights, slavery in Thailand can start virtually at birth. There is an active market in Bangkok’s slums for newborn babies, which are available at prices from $20 to $100.
The children are raised in a family with other children, but, as in the story of Cinderella, they get none of the advantages. They are reared only to perform chores in the house for free.
Sanphasit said many young children are employed at gasoline stations, food shops and markets as unskilled labor. Many get no money at all, just food and a place to sleep. They are often confined to the shop in which they work and “have no private time to play, study or do anything. It’s real slavery,” he said.
“You can see child labor all around Bangkok,” said Srisavang Phuavongphatya, vice president of the Foundation for Child Development. “They work very long hours, with no days off, for very little money. Sometimes they even can’t get out of their place.”
According to official statistics cited by Srisavang, in 1987 there were 134,800 children aged 11-12 working in menial jobs, 832,700 aged 13-14 and 3.5 million aged 15-19.
“The facilities are not for children, they are for animals,” she said. “They are packing boxes or sewing. It’s not skilled labor.”
None of the forms of slavery is as controversial as the sex industry, where the line between consensual labor and forced work is steadily growing paler.
When the police arrive, some prostitutes have even balked at being freed, saying they enjoy their lives and are earning good wages to send back to their families.
“I believe these girls--11, 12, 13 years--are too young to decide about their future,” said Sanphasit. “They know no other way of life. “
“The parents don’t think about it, they just assume the girls are working to help the family,” said Khunying Kanitha. “Most girls accept it because they are showing gratitude to their parents.”
Little publicity is given to the alcoholism and violence in the sex trade. For many girls, prostitution is a death sentence as well--studies in northern Thailand have found more than half of the prostitutes studied infected with the AIDs virus.
One teacher in northern Thailand polled her fourth-grade students with the age-old question: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” The teacher was stunned when a majority replied they wanted to become prostitutes in Bangkok.