Corvée (Forced) Labour
Focus (1): The Congo "Rubber Terror"
Focus (2): Stalin's USSR
Focus (3): The Nazis and Japanese
Focus (4): Myanmar (Burma) today
Corvée (forced) labour is a phenomenon as old as civilization, and has led directly to the deaths of tens of millions of people throughout history. Overwhelmingly, males have been targeted, though several of the most destructive forced-labour institutions have swept up women in substantial, even approximately equal, numbers (for example, in the Nazi-occupied territories). This case-study focuses on the most genocidal twentieth-century instances of corvée (the "rubber terror" of the Belgian and French Congos, the industrialization projects of Stalinist Russia, and the occupation policies of the Nazis and Japanese). Attention is also paid to perhaps the worst contemporary example of the phenomenon: Myanmar (Burma), where forced labour has apparently led to the deaths of many thousands of people, predominantly males.
The International Labour Organization's Forced Labour Convention of 1930 defines forced labour as "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself [or herself] voluntarily." (For the origins of the term "corvée," see the entry in the Columbia Encyclopedia.)
One of the few very scholars to have attended to the genocidal (or "democidal") dimension of forced labour is R.J. Rummel. In his book Death by Government, Rummel offers the estimate that "at a rock-bottom minimum, 10 million colonial forced laborers must have died" as a result of the brutal exploitation inflicted upon them, and "the true toll may have been several times this number." He adds:
This does not even weigh the human cost of the state's conventional forced labor -- that of subjects compelled to man galleys, sail ships (as by the operation of press-gangs in British ports), carry supplies and weapons in time of war or rebellion, build pyramids, construct fortifications, or build roads, bridges, dams, canals and the like. Indeed, the use of such forced labor, or corvée, has been traditional in Asia, even up to recent decades. Sometimes this labor served in lieu of taxes, where the subject was decreed to owe to the king or emperor or state a month or more of labor per year. While perhaps justifiable in theory, the practice often meant that overseers would execute the laborer that was too often late for work, slow on the job, sickly, or critical of the work. (Rummel, Death by Government [New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994], pp. 64-65.)
Gendercide Watch is aware of no estimate of the gender breakdown of these deaths by forced labour, but the casualties must be at least 85-90 percent male, probably higher. Most corvée institutions in antiquity, in the colonial era, and in the modern age of state-building appear to have targeted males exclusively or almost exclusively. As such, corvée labour, along with female infanticide, may be reckoned the most gendercidal institution in human history.
Considerable conceptual difficulties arise when one seeks to distinguish corvée labour from closely-associated forms of labour exploitation, notably slavery, military conscription, incarceration, and trafficking in human beings. Elsewhere on this site, Gendercide Watch provides detailed case-studies of incarceration/the death penalty and military conscription/impressment, in which some of the forced-labour dimension is brought out (as in the cases of Stalinist Russia and the Chinese military of World War II; on conscription, see also the Armenia case-study). Slavery and corvée are particularly hard to separate, and in cases like the Congo (see below) may be all but indistinguishable. Nonetheless, it can be stated in general terms that slavery aims to exploit captive individuals for life, while corvée is usually inflicted on a seasonal basis or for a limited period. As John Ryle writes, "Forced labor, like slavery, involves the deprivation of liberty, but differs from slavery in that no claim of permanent right of ownership is made over a person subject to it." (Ryle, "Forced Labor," in Roy Gutman and David Rieff, eds., Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know [New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999], p. 148.) Trafficking in human beings, and the related institution of indentured labour, are for the time being outside the purview of this website.
Focus (1): The Congo "Rubber Terror"
author of King
Though it became a cause célèbre in turn-of-the-century Europe, the genocide that took place in the Belgian and French Congos subsequently all but dropped out of the historical record. Only Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness kept the memory of the atrocities alive. Not until the publication of Adam Hochschild's prize-winning 1998 book, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, was the Congo genocide revived for contemporary readers.
King Leopold of Belgium
The territory that became the "Congo Free State" under Belgian King Leopold's personal rule (today, it is known as the Democratic Republic of Congo) is a massive one that "if superimposed on the map of Europe would stretch from Zurich to Moscow to central Turkey" (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, p. 72). The key figure in the events is Leopold himself, whom one commentator described as "a cartoon-strip megalomaniac -- a mad, greedy king obsessed since adolescence with the idea of running a colony of his own and intent throughout his career on covering his lust for money and real estate in honeyed talk of philanthropy and human rights." (Michiko Kakutani, "'King Leopold's Ghost': Genocide With Spin Control", The New York Times, September 1, 1998.)
In 1874, Leopold, desperate to match the colonial holdings of other European powers, commissioned the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley to colonize Congo for him. According to Baffour Ankomah, "Stanley used the gun, cheap European goods and plain-faced deceit to win over 450 local chiefs and their people and take over their land. ... He just asked the Congolese chiefs to mark Xs to legal documents written in a foreign language they had not seen before." (Ankomah, "The Butcher of Congo", New African, October 1999.) Stanley's only competition came from the French, who sent a mission under Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza to seize an enclave (Congo Brazzaville) for France.
With most of the vast region established as his personal fief by 1885, King Leopold set about exploiting the ivory and other resources of "his" Congo. His agents established a regime of "absolute terror" (Ankomah, "The Butcher of Congo") that would only deepen in the 1890s, with the invention of the pneumatic tire by the Irishman John Dunlop. "Rubber became the new gold, and Leopold was soon laughing all the way to the bank. The huge rainforest of Congo teemed with wild rubber, and Leopold pressed his agents for more of it. This is when the genocide reached its peak. Tapping wild rubber was a difficult affair, and Leopold's agents had to use brutal force to get the people [men] of Congo to go into the forests and gather rubber ..." (Ankomah, "The Butcher of Congo").
The result was one of the most brutal and all-encompassing corvée institutions the world has ever seen, leading to "a death toll of Holocaust dimensions" (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, p. 4). Male rubber tappers and porters were mercilessly exploited and driven to death. Hochschild cites one official's description of "about a hundred [porters], trembling and fearful before the overseer, who strolled by whirling a whip. For each stocky and broad-backed fellow, how many were skeletons dried up like mummies, their skin worn out ... seamed with deep scars, covered with suppurating wounds." A Belgian politician, Edmond Picard, described a caravan of luckless male conscripts:
Unceasingly we meet these porters ... black, miserable, with only a horribly filthy loin-cloth for clothing, frizzy and bare head supporting the load -- box, bale, ivory tusk ... barrel-chested; most of them sickly, drooping under a burden increased by tiredness and insufficient food -- a handful of rice and some stinking dried fish; pitiful walking caryatids, beasts of burden with thin monkey legs, with drawn features, eyes fixed and round from preoccupation with keeping their balance and from the daze of exhaustion. They come and go like this by the thousands ... requisitioned by the State armed with its powerful militia, handed over by chiefs whose slaves they are and who make off with their salaries, trotting with bent knees, belly forward, an arm raised to steady the load, the other leaning on a long walking-stick, dusty and sweaty, insects spreading out across the mountains and valleys their many files and their task of Sisyphus, dying along the road or, the journey over, heading off to die from overwork in their villages. (Cited in Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, pp. 119-20.)
To conscript the male labourers across the vast territory of the Congo, the European overseers often resorted to outright kidnapping. Another popular tactic was more sophisticated in its gendering. When men fled into the jungle, women and others in the community would be held hostage until they returned to face conscription and probable death. Many thousands of these women were eventually transported into a version of corvée themselves; a Swedish missionary described seeing "a group of seven hundred women chained together and transported," on their way to probable rape and prostitution -- in any case to brutalization and servitude -- on the coast. Similar strategies were employed to secure supplies of wild rubber for export, before the establishing of the plantation economy. A British vice consul described one Congo officer's practice as being "to arrive in canoes at a village, the inhabitants of which invariably bolted on their arrival; ... [his forces] attacked the natives until able to seize their women; these women were kept as hostages until the Chief of the district brought in the required number of kilogrammes of rubber. The rubber having been brought, the women were sold back to their owners for a couple of goats apiece, and so he continued from village to village until the requisite amount of rubber had been collected. ... If you were a male villager, resisting the order to gather rubber could mean death for your wife. She might die anyway, for in the stockades food was scarce and conditions were harsh." (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, pp. 126, 130, 161-62).
According to Jessica Carew Kraft, "the Congo terror ceased only after the population declined so dramatically that forced labor became unprofitable." (Kraft reviewing King Leopold's Ghost in Current History, May 1999.) Also significant, though, was the protest movement (the Congo Reform Association) launched by a small handful of dedicated individuals: Edmund Dene Morel, Sir Roger Casement, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes stories), and last but not least, Joseph Conrad, a Polish immigrant to Britain whose fictional account Heart of Darkness Hochschild describes as a "precise and detailed" portrait of the grotesquely-misnamed "Congo Free State" (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, p. 143). The swelling international protests finally led King Leopold to sell the "Free State" to the Belgian government in 1908. Belgium would keep control over the country until 1960, carefully ensuring that no educated or Congolese professional class was allowed to emerge. As independent Zaire after 1960, and the Democratic Republic of Congo after 1998, the country became almost a watchword for poverty, dictatorship, and civil war. (For a regularly-updated overview of the current Congo conflict, which has been called "Africa's First World War," see OneWorld, "Special Reports: Congo War".)
The Democratic Republic of Congo today.
The gendercidal dimension of the Congo holocaust is made clear in Hochschild's survey of census figures gathered after the "rubber terror" had subsided:
No territory-wide census was taken in the Congo until long after the rubber terror was over. But Daniel Vangroenweghe, a Belgian anthropologist who worked in a former rubber area in the 1970s, found persuasive demographic evidence that large numbers of men had been worked to death as rubber slaves or killed in punitive raids -- and he discovered the evidence in the [Belgian] regime's own statistics. No other explanation accounts for the curious pattern that threads through the village-by-village headcounts taken in the colony long before the first territorial census. These local headcounts consistently show far more women than men. At Inongo in 1907, for example, there were 309 children, 402 adult women, but only 275 adult men. ... At nearby Iboko in 1908 there were 322 children, 543 adult women, but only 262 adult men. Statistics from numerous other villages show the same pattern. Sifting such figures today is like sifting the ruins of an Auschwitz crematorium. They do not tell you precise death tolls, but they reek of mass murder. (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, p. 232.)
Hochschild accepts the conclusions of a Belgian government commission to the Congo that "the population of the territory had 'been reduced by half'" as a result of Belgian rule. "In 1924," he adds, "the population was reckoned at ten million, a figure confirmed by later counts. This would mean, according to the estimates, that during the Leopold period and its immediate aftermath the population of the territory dropped by approximately ten million people." (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, p. 233, emphasis added.) How many of these actually died as a direct result of forced labour is uncertain: Hochschild takes not only victims of disease and starvation into account, but the "plummeting birth rate" that resulted "when men were sent into the forest in search of rubber for weeks at a time, year after year, and women were held hostage and half-starved." (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, p. 231.) Nonetheless, those directly killed by the institution of forced labour in the Congo must reach seven figures, and may be as high as three or four million.
The Belgians were not the only colonial power to inflict genocidal atrocities on the people of the Congo region. Kurt Jonassohn and Karen Björnson place French rule in "their" part of the Congo around this time in the same category of cruelty:
As resistance to French rule became more widespread in the French Congo, its suppression also increased. The burning of villages and the massacring of civilians continued unabated. Men forced into the rubber plantations were rarely given enough food to survive and usually starved to death. Those who were allowed to return to their villages were given three months to plant a harvest. Feeling exhausted and discouraged, these men were convinced that they would not be given enough time to care for their fields and that their harvests would be plundered: they refused to do any planting. As a result of this refusal, the French labelled these men as lazy, stating that it was their own slothfulness that was responsible for the mass starvation in the area. Those who attempted to elude forced labor were arrested. Roped by the neck, and usually naked, they often died of starvation before they reached their work assignment. (Jonassohn with Björnson, Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations [New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998], p. 242.)
Hochschild likewise notes that "In France's equatorial African territories, where the region's history is best documented, the amount of rubber-bearing land was far less than what Leopold controlled, but the rape [he apparently means gendercide] was just as brutal. ... The population loss in the rubber-rich equatorial rain forest owned by France is estimated, just as in Leopold's Congo, as roughly 50 percent. ... In the 1920s, construction of a new railway through French territory bypassing the big Congo River rapids cost the lives of an estimated twenty thousand forced laborers, far more than had died building, and later rebuilding, Leopold's railway nearby." (Hochschild, King Leopold's Ghost, p. 280.) The French Governor-General Antonetti, planning construction of a railway to the coast, was "frank about the human cost" of the project. "Either accept the sacrifice of six to eight thousand men, or renounce the railways," he declared, and later: "I need 10,000 dead [men] for my railways." (Jonassohn with Björnson, Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations, p. 242.)
Focus (2): Stalin's USSR
The region of eternal frost
Wrote men off into eternity,
Moved them from the category of "living"
To that of "dead" (little difference between them) --
Who and what for and by whose will --
Figure it out, History.
- Soviet poet quoted in Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990], p. 340.
Gendercide Watch provides two in-depth case studies of the mass atrocities wreaked upon the Soviet Union by the regime of Joseph Stalin (Stalin's Purges and incarceration/the death penalty). The latter, in particular, provides a detailed picture of the death camps of the "Gulag Archipelago," in which many or most of Stalin's millions of victims, overwhelmingly male, died in large part as a result of ruthless forced labour. This section, accordingly, aims to supplement but not duplicate the analyses available elsewhere on the site.
Prison labourers at work on the White Sea Canal.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes Stalinist forced labour as essentially a mechanism of genocide. In this respect, it bears comparison with the death-camp system established under the Nazis (see below). It also contrasts with other murderous corvée institutions, in which the deaths of the labourers may have been viewed as incidental or inevitable, but in which the corvée was not itself conceptualized as a means of deliberately bringing about mass death and the destruction of a targeted group. For Solzhenitsyn, the explanation for the building of the Belomar (White Sea) Canal between 1931 and 1933, the first of the great forced-labour projects, reflected the fact that "Stalin simply needed a great construction project somewhere which would devour many working hands and many lives (the surplus of people as a result of the liquidation of the kulaks [wealthier peasantry]), with the reliability of a gas execution van but more cheaply, and which would at the same time leave a great monument to his reign of the same general sort as the pyramids." (Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II [New York: Harper & Row, 1975], p. 86.) He estimates that 100,000 workers, perhaps more, died during only the first winter of work on the Canal (p. 98).
What of the economic dimension of forced labour? Most authors agree with Solzhenitsyn that it was secondary: the immense human destruction was hardly "economic" in a traditional sense, and even "threatened to undermine what had [already] been achieved," according to Alan Bullock. But some of the logic becomes apparent "if we turn the original question around and no longer ask what objective was important enough to pay the price of liquidating so many able, experienced people but recognize that, for Stalin, this was not the price but the objective itself." (Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives [Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993], p. 508.)
There was, nonetheless, an economic logic to the Stalinist corvée, according to Robert Conquest: "The millions of slave laborers at the disposal of Gulag played an important economic role, and indeed became accepted as a normal component of the Soviet economy ... The mass arrests remain basically a political phenomenon ... But once people were arrested, the extraction of their physical labor ensured at least some contribution to the economy, and (granted the initial irrationality of the whole Purge) there is nothing contrary to reason and common sense in Stalin's typical decision to integrate them into his economic machine. ... A man killed by squeezing a year or two's effort out of him is of more use than a man kept in prison." (Conquest, The Great Terror: A Reassessment, pp. 331-33.)
Solzhenitsyn develops the point further, arguing that given Stalin's decision to "strengthen" the Soviet state "in a very short period of time," the pressing "need was [for] manpower" that was "cheap in the extreme, and better still ... free," as well as "undemanding, capable of being shifted about from place to place ..." According to Solzhenitsyn, "It was possible to obtain such manpower only by swallowing up one's own sons" (The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. II, p. 143). The Gulag system, accordingly, swelled in response to economic need: "From 1930 on, it was not that the digging of canals was invented for dozing [prison] camps, but that camps were urgently scraped together for the envisioned canals. It was not the number of genuine 'criminals' (or even 'doubtful persons') which determined the intensity of the courts' activities -- but the requisitions of the economic establishment" (p. 578).
Who, except prisoners, would have worked at logging ten hours a day, in addition to marching four miles through the woods in predawn darkness and the same distance back at night, in a temperature of minus 20, and knowing in a year no other rest days than May 1 and November 7 [the anniversary of the Soviet Revolution]? ... And who other than the Archipelago natives [prisoners] would have grubbed out stumps in winter? Or hauled on their backs the boxes of mined ore in the open goldfields of the Kolyma? Or have dragged cut timber a half-mile from the Koin River (a tributary of the Vym) through deep snow on Finnish timber-sledge runners, harnessed up in pairs in a horse collar ...? (p. 579)
"The camps were uniquely profitable in terms of the submissiveness of the slave labor and its cheapness," Solzhenitsyn writes. "No, it was not just cheap, it cost nothing, because in antiquity money did have to be paid for a slave, whereas no one paid anything to buy a camp inmate" (p. 581). Among the long list of corvée projects undertaken between the 1930s and the 1950s, he cites the following:
The Belomar Canal (1932)
The Moscow-Volga Canal (1936)
The Volga-Don Canal (1952)
The Kotlas-Vorkuta Railroad
The Rikasikha-Molotovsk Railroad
The Trans-Siberian second tracks (1933-1935, about 2,500 miles)
The railroad to Ulan-Bator, and highways in Mongolia
The Minsk-Moscow highway (1937-38)
Construction of the city of Komsomolsk-on-the-Amur
Construction of the city of Sovetskaya Gavan
Construction of the city of Norilsk
Construction of the pipeline from Sakhalin to the mainland
Construction of nearly all the centers of nuclear industry ... (pp. 591-93)
As Solzhenitsyn notes wryly in concluding his study of "The Destructive-Labor Camps": "It is indeed much easier to enumerate the occupations the prisoners never did have: the manufacture of sausages and confectionary goods" (p. 594).
Focus (3): The Nazis and Japanese
The Nazis. A report by Nathan Associates Inc., "Forced Labor Under the Third Reich", states (p. 3) that "At the peak of the [Second World] war, one of every five workers in the economy of the Third Reich was a forced laborer. According to [H.E.] Fried, in January 1944 the Third Reich was relying on 10 million forced laborers. Of these, 6.5 million were civilians within German borders, 2.2 million were prisoners of war, and 1.3 million were located at forced labor camps outside Germany's borders."
The link to gender in the Nazis' use of forced labour is threefold. First, the dependence on corvée labour was a direct response to tenets of National Socialist ideology, which "precluded using German women" for labour projects when millions of German men had been conscripted into the war effort. In the summary of Ulrich Herbert (cited in Nathan Associates Inc., p. 3):
From the mid-1930's onwards, as the growing manpower shortage began to threaten the very existence of the Nazi regime, the authorities were forced [sic] with the choice of conscripting either German women or foreign nationals. ... However, the deployment of [German] women as workers was far more unpopular, and would upset the already precarious domestic political balance of the regime. Furthermore, it contradicted National Socialist ideology regarding the role of women, and the deep convictions of a large segment of the population. ... [There was] the basic and (on the German side) deliberate decision to plug the holes in the German labor market by using foreign nationals rather than German women.
Second, regardless of the Nazis' inhibitions about the use of German women as labourers, no such restraints obtained in conscripting foreign forced labour, especially from the occupied territories of the East. "The majority of forced laborers were young adults born between 1918 and 1925, and more than 50 percent of them were women." (Nathan Associates Inc., "Forced Labor Under the Third Reich", p. 10, emphasis added.)
Women forced labourers under Nazi rule.
Leaving aside the exceptional case of Jewish forced-labourers (see below), it is uncertain to what extent forced labour in the German Reich contributed to excess death rates among the labourers. The Nathan Associates study contends that the survival rate of forced labourers is comparable to that of Americans, born at the same time, who never experienced forced labour (see Nathan Associates Inc., p. 10). However, this seems intuitively unlikely, given the extremely harsh conditions, including serious nutritional deficiencies, that forced labourers from the occupied lands of the East were exposed to. It must also be borne in mind that in many cases, forced labourers who fell sick or made mistakes on the job were dispatched to out-and-out death camps, and therefore may be counted among the casualties of the Nazi holocaust. Lastly, a gender dimension may enter into the picture in the sense that males were standardly allocated to dangerous mining and construction projects, whereas the survival of female forced-labourers may have been higher in the predominantly manufacturing, agricultural, and domestic tasks to which they were disproportionately assigned. The paucity of available sources limits our ability to explore this matter further, or to pass judgment on whether the Nazi exploitation of eastern forced labourers as a whole constitutes genocide or gendercide. (Forced labourers from western countries were generally much better treated, receiving wages, rations, and benefits roughly in accordance with those granted to German workers.)
A great deal more information exists about the third significant "gendering" of forced labour. The reference is to the use of specifically Jewish populations in the occupied territories for corvée purposes. Raul Hilberg's exhaustive analysis of The Destruction of the European Jews makes it clear that in the initial stages of the German occupation of Poland, Jewish males, but not females, were targeted for corvée. "The columns were a cheap source of manpower," Hilberg writes, and also assisted in the process of dispossessing the Jewish community of its financial resources "by instituting labor exemption payments, which were exacted from registered able-bodied men who wished to purchase their freedom." (Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Revised and Definitive Edition, Vol. I [New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985], p. 251.) After a period in which Jewish conscripts were drafted during for labour during the day but released at night, a series of labour camps was established in which only men were incarcerated, and in which a gendercidal component became plain. "Men sleps in crowded quarters on hard floors. No clothes were issued. ... Working from dawn to dusk seven days a week, the Jews were driven to collapse. A survivor reports that even small camps, with no more than 400 to 500 inmates, had approximately twelve dead every day." (Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Vol. I, p. 254.)
This was, though, only a preliminary stage in the wider targeting of the Jewish population for forced labour. With the establishment of the extensive death-camp system beginning in mid-1941, "Jewish 'work' ... [was seen] as temporary exploitation, as a brief detour on the inexorable road to the crematoria or the pits ... if not itself a means of killing them," notes Daniel Goldhagen. "Jews were creatures to be wrested from any repose, meant to suffer, to be beaten and tortured, to be attacked by dogs, to die at the whim of his [sic] German Übermensch [Superman]. ... The assumption of extermination and immiseration transformed economic production itself into the handmaiden of the genocidal destruction of the workers." (Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust [New York: Vintage Books, 1997], pp. 290, 298, 310, 322.)
The economic irrationality of working Jews to death attested to the pathological hatred the Nazis felt towards them, and the primacy that Hitler and his henchmen accorded to the destruction of European Jewry even ahead of strict military and economic considerations. And males and females alike were swept up in the carnage, as Gendercide Watch examines in greater detail in the Jewish holocaust case-study on this site. Indeed, the all-consuming savagery of the Nazi assault on the European Jews meant that the traditional link between forced labour and gendercide became somewhat twisted in the death camps. Able-bodied Jewish males stood the best chance of temporary reprieve from extermination, while all women with young children, and all pregnant women, were sent directly to the gas chambers. It is important to stress, however, that this reprieve was not only temporary but standardly tortuous; Gendercide Watch is aware of no studies indicating that the disproportionate use of Jewish men for forced labour led, in the end, to a higher survival rate for males versus females. These issues are again examined more closely in the Jewish holocaust case-study.
One footnote should be appended to this discussion of the gendering of Nazi forced labour. As Nathan Associates Inc. notes, some 2.2 million of the forced labourers in the Reich itself were male prisoners-of-war, overwhelmingly from the Soviet Union. Corvée generally spared these prisoners the fate suffered by millions of their comrades: extermination through starvation, disease, and execution. But the fact that they spent an extended period on German soil during the war made them "traitors" in the eyes of the Soviet regime, and most of them, upon returning to the USSR after the war, were packed off to the death-camps of the "Gulag Archipelago," where unknown hundreds of thousands died. (See the Soviet prisoners-of-war case-study for further details.)
In recent years, the issue of the Nazis' use of forced labour has made headlines around the world. As with victims of Japanese forced labour during the Second World War (see below), survivors of the corvée have filed claims for compensation with German courts. According to Nathan Associates Inc. (p. 10), "Since the end of the war, there has been no initiative on the part of the German government or German industry to compensate those who were forced laborers under the Third Reich. Nor has there been any plan to provide a remedy to the forced laborers treatment inflicted on them during their servitude, including the unequal pay, unpaid hours, and unpaid social benefits for which they were taxed." This changed in July 2000, however, with the announcement of a "German 'Remembrance Responsibility and Future' Foundation to pay \$4.8 billion to nearly a million victims of Nazi slave and forced labor and other atrocities. Certain property and banking claims are also covered by the settlement. It is estimated that former slave laborers (those who were confined in concentration camps) will receive a maximum of approximately $7,500; former forced laborers should receive a maximum of approximately $2,500." (See "Case Watch: German Slave and Forced Labor Settlement", prepared by Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld, & Toll P.L.L.C., and the documents compiled at the "Holocaust Issues" section of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Germany.)
The Japanese. "Thanks to the secrecy still surrounding government and company archives in Japan, nobody knows for sure how many people Japanese firms enslaved during the war," writes The Economist. "But some historians guess that there were as many as 700,000 Koreans, 40,000 Chinese and hundreds of thousands of other Asians who were forced into labour. Besides these, perhaps half of the 140,000 allied prisoners captured by the Japanese army were also forced to work. Workers slaved in wretched conditions in mines, steel plants, construction sites and factories in Japan and throughout its colonies. Death rates were high in many of the prisoner-of-war and work camps, and torture and abuse were common. Promised salaries for Asian 'workers' were rarely paid." ("Japan's Murky Past Catches Up," The Economist, July 8, 2000.)
In his classic study of "Race and Power in the Pacific War," John W. Dower summarizes the enormous destruction that forced labour wreaked upon the male populations of Japanese-occupied East and Southeast Asia:
Between 1939 and 1945, close to 670,000 Koreans were brought to Japan for fixed terms of work, mostly in mines and heavy industry, and it has been estimated that 60,000 or more of them died under the harsh conditions of their work places. Over 10,000 others were probably killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More precise figures are available concerning Chinese laborers mobilized to work in Japan. Of 41,862 men assembled in China for such work between April 1943 and May 1945 ... over 2,800 died before leaving China, close to 600 perished on the boats coming to Japan, and over 200 more passed away before reaching their work assignments in factories throughout Japan. Subsequently, 6,872 Chinese workers were recorded as having died at their Japanese work sites, leaving less than 31,000 to be repatriated after the war ended. Estimates concerning conscripted labor in Southeast Asia vary greatly, although it is well known that Indonesians in particular suffered grievously under the Japanese occupation. Japanese recruitment of Indonesian laborers (romusha) was so harsh that some villages were stripped of almost all able-bodied men, causing severe socio-economic dislocations, while the number of deaths among the romusha themselves was in the hundreds of thousands. (John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War [New York: Pantheon Books, 1986], p. 47.)
Perhaps the most infamous case of Japanese forced labour is the Siam-Burma Railway, the building of which was immortalized in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. The railway "earned the name 'Death Railway' because nearly one-fifth of the 60,000 Allied prisoners-of-war engaged in building it died in the process, as did about one-third of the quarter-million drafted Asian civilian labourers." (George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan's Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994], p. 133.)
Another example of Japanese forced-labour strategies was the construction of the Ping Fan biological-warfare complex near the city of Harbin in occupied Manchuria. "Chinese labor built the sprawling death factory over a two-year period," writes Sheldon H. Harris in his study, Factories of Death. "It is estimated that at least 10,000 to 15,000 laborers were recruited to work in Ping Fan from the time construction began in 1936 until its destruction in August 1945 shortly before the arrival of Soviet troops in Harbin":
The occupation army required that virtually every Chinese male between sixteen and sixty years of age residing in Manchuria devote four months each year to serving their needs. Each household containing three or more males was forced to provide one laborer for one year's duty. Other laborers were beguiled by unscrupulous Japanese middlemen and co-opted Chinese officials to leave their homes in Hebei, Shandong, and other North China provinces for promised well-paying jobs in Manchuria. They, too, ended up by working in Ping Fan. ...
On average ... a detail of 750 laborers would be on hand for work at the camp. ... Most were either illiterate or sub-literate, [and] almost all came from desperately poor peasant families. ... Once employed at Ping Fan, a worker was denied any human rights. He worked from sunrise to sunset or longer. No time off was given for a day of rest. The work week was seven days. No medical care was given to the Chinese laborers. As one guard lightheartedly remarked, "there are lots of Chinese; it does not matter if one or two died." In reality, more than one third of all the workers employed at Ping Fan from 1936 until 1945 died of mistreatment at the camp.
Workers were assigned hazardous tasks with no thought for their safety, since there were others who could replace them, should mishaps occur. ... Workers were paid pitifully low wages even by the standards of the day. They earned barely enough to pay for food and shelter. ... Housing consisted of tents which offered little protection in winter from the intensely cold and damp climate. All the men suffered from malnutrition. ... The workers dressed in tattered rags in all seasons. Winter, of course, was the most difficult time. The men simply did not have sufficient rags to keep their bodies warm. Many died of frostbite and exposure. ...
Brutal treatment for the workers who built Ping Fan was the norm, not the exception. As a result, many thousands of men died of the callous care meted out to the Chinese. Those who died were buried in wasteland outside Ping Fan's north gate. So many victims were ultimately buried in this common grave that the site became known as the "laborers' graveyard." (Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, and the American Cover-Up [London: Routledge, 1994], pp. 37-38.)
In another typical case, the Associated Press reported in November 2000 that "Relatives of 418 Chinese workers who died after brutal forced labor in a World War II Japanese mine" had reached a U.S. 4.6 million[-dollar] settlement with Kajima Corp., which operated the Hanaoka minesite in northern Japan. The 418 constituted more than 40 percent of the 986 Chinese miners who toiled at "one of the most potent symbols of Japan's brutality toward workers from Asian countries it conquered. ... Conditions were so bad [at Hanaoka] that workers staged a revolt that was crushed by Japanese military forces. Many of the workers were tortured and killed during questioning following the mutiny." ("$4.6 Million Settlement Reached in World War II Japanese Labor Case", Associated Press dispatch in The New York Times, November 29, 2000.) Since 1999, a number of lawsuits have been filed in California courts, after that U.S. state became the first "to pass a statute which would allow World War II slave and forced labor victims or their heirs to bring legal actions against those responsible for and who benefitted and profited from the massive use of slave and forced labor." (See Herman Middleton, "Slave and Forced Labor During World War II"; and Bernice Yeung, "Slave Wages", SF Weekly, July 5, 2000.)
The "Comfort Women." In recent years, controversy over the Japanese use of forced labour has centered on the so-called "comfort women" -- Asian women who were drafted to serve as prostitutes for Japanese troops and, sometimes, male forced laborers. Some 80,000 of the estimated 200,000 women conscripted by the Japanese were forced into sexual servitude in this fashion. The institution was aimed at preventing some of the depredations, especially rape, inflicted on local populations by Japanese forces in the Russian Far East after World War I. Such crimes "enraged the local population and spread debilitating sexually transmitted diseases, making it both harder for Japanese troops to govern and undermining their ability to do so." (Velisarios Kattoulas, "No Comfort for the Women", Far Eastern Economic Review, March 15, 2001.)
Accordingly, after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese army began to construct a network of hundreds of "comfort stations" across the occupied territories, "dup[ing] or forc[ing] Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Filipino, Japanese and Dutch women to work in them." These women experienced treatment that "was almost universally barbaric. They were forced to have sex with as many as 50 men a day, some were tied to beds with their legs open, and many were beaten by drunken soldiers." (Kattoulas, "No Comfort for the Women".) According to George Hicks, "The comfort system consisted of the legalised military rape of subject women on a scale -- and over a period of time -- previously unknown in history." An estimated 80 percent of the "comfort women" were Korean, and 80 percent were between 14 and 18 years of age when they were seized. (Hicks, The Comfort Women, pp. 16-17.)
One former "comfort woman," Li Xiumei, recounted a tale that spoke for tens of thousands of others:
One day in my 14th year when I was sitting on the kang [floor heated from beneath by smoke], four Japanese soldiers came to my house, took me out, put me on a donkey, and took me to Jingui Village. They imprisoned me in part of a building, where I was raped day in and day out, both in daytime and at night. After about five months of this I thought I might as well die, and so resisted the ruddy-faced commander. In anger he whipped my face with a leather belt, kicked my left thigh with his boots, and beat my whole body with a club. My serious injuries got me released at last, and I returned home only to find that my mother had hanged herself in despair because she had been unable to get enough money to buy my release. From the Japanese government I demand a sincere apology, and compensation for my suffering.
A Dutch woman, Jan Ruff, told her own story at a public forum in 1992. She had been interned by the Japanese in central Java (present-day Indonesia was at the time the Dutch East Indies), where her "initiation" began with a rape by a Japanese officer:
Mihashi tore at my clothes and ripped them off. ... He played with me like a cat plays with a helpless mouse. Then he started to undress. He threw himself on top of me, pinning me under his body. I tried to fight him off and kicked and scratched him, but he was too strong. The tears were streaming down my face as he raped me. It seemed as if he would never stop. To me, this brutal and inhuman rape was worse than dying. ... We [she and her fellow internees] washed ourselves as if it could wash away all that had happened to us. ... I hid in a room on the back verandah. My whole body was shaking with fear. "Not again, I can't go through this again," I thought. After a while the angry voices came closer, and I was dragged out of my hiding place. The night was not over yet, there were more Japanese waiting. The terror started all over again. I never realised suffering could be so intense as this. And this was only the beginning. (Quoted in Hicks, The Comfort Women, p. 63.)
Relatively few "comfort women" died as a direct result of Japanese mistreatment; most succumbed to disease, or to the Allied bombardments that swept them up along with the Japanese forces being targeted. Nonetheless, the death rate was very high: approximately one in every six "comfort women" died during their period of servitude, according to Hicks. Hicks's estimate is that up to 139,000 were conscripted, meaning that the death-toll may have reached 23,000. Other estimates place the total number of "comfort women" as high as 200,000.
Those who survived faced continued shame and suffering upon their return home, and "for the most part kept silent about their experiences" until recent times:
Some were able to keep up the pretence that during the war they had done what they were recruited to do -- be it waitressing or nursing. In a society dominated by patriarchal views of chastity and morality, and a lack of openness about sex, the shame of the whole repugnant experience silenced many women. Many may have felt themselves to blame for their fate. ... The very fact that female chastity has such a high moral value made loss of virginity even more devastating and psychologically more damaging to the comfort women victims. Their prospects for a respectable marriage and a family were dramatically reduced. Those who did marry often kept their shame secret for decades, enduring their conjugal activities as a torment, and suffering severe mental anguish which could not find release in an open acknowledgment of the wrong done to them. In societies which placed great emphasis on the birth of heirs, many of these women proved sterile, crippled by a variety of diseases, the brutality of their experiences, [or] the drugs they were sometimes forced to consume to abort unwanted pregnancies or to prevent or cure diseases. Sometimes they had been sterilised by the operations done on them to eliminate menstruation, keeping them always available. They had trouble coping with the need to pretend to normalcy, and to stay silent about their wartime suffering. (Hicks, The Comfort Women, pp. 164-65.)
Finally, in the later 1980s, women in Korea and Japan organized around the issue and began to petition for redress. In response, in 1995, the Japanese government and private sources established the "Asian Women's Fund" to compensate surviving "comfort women." The government then stated that it considered the issue closed, but numerous survivors continued to file petitions and class-action lawsuits calling for further financial compensation and an official apology from the Japanese government. ("Japan Stands Firm on U.S. Suit by 'Comfort Women'", Reuters dispatch in The New York Times, September 19, 2000.) In 1998, a district court ordered the Japanese government to pay a paltry US \$7,000 in compensation to three Korean "comfort women," but the Hiroshima High Court overturned the ruling in March 2001, claiming that the abduction of women for sexual servitude "was not a serious constitutional violation." (See "Japan Overturns Sex Slave Ruling", BBC Online, March 29, 2001.)
Myanmar (Burma) today
The Burmese people are presently suffering under the most enduring military regime in the world. The Burmese Army seized control of Burma (which had gained its independence from Britain in 1948) in March 1962 under General Ne Win. Military rule was enshrined in the dictatorship of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).
The Burmese people rebelled in 1988, launching a mass movement headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of famed independence leader Aung San. After a general strike was called, thousands of protesters were killed or maimed. Finally, in September, the military took direct control, establishing the SLORC -- the State Law and Order Restoration Council -- to replace all established organs of the state. Burma's name was officially changed to Myanmar in 1989.
The military called and contested national elections in May 1990. But when the opposition National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi overwhelmingly won the vote, the SLORC refused to accept the result, and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remains. In 1997, the SLORC underwent a formal change to the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council), but the basic parameters of military rule remained intact.
Since the 1950s, Myanmar/Burma has faced a series of ethnically-based separatist revolts by the Arakenese, Karen, Mon, Kachins, and others. The country has also been exposed to disastrous economic mismanagement, making it one of the poorest nations in the world today. It is in the light of this separatist unrest, widespread poverty, and primitive infrastructure that the regime's constant resort to forced labour must be viewed. Most corvée labourers are consigned to work on infrastructural projects such as roads and bridges, or -- most brutally -- to work as porters, carrying supplies in the remote border regions when the regime launches one of its regular offensives against separatist rebels.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has described forced labour in Myanmar as "an endemic abuse affecting hundreds of thousands of workers who [are] subjected to the most extreme forms of exploitation." (ILO, "Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma)", Report of the Commission of Inquiry, July 1998, para. 100.) The ILO adds that
Forced labour practices for public purposes include the following: (1) portering, combat, mine-sweeping, and sexual services for military troops; (2) construction and other heavy labour on development and infrastructure projects that do not benefit and, most often, harm the population from which forced labour is exacted; and (3) heavy work on military construction projects. The practice of forced labour for private benefit is to: (1) promote joint venture developments, including the country's oil and natural gas reserves; (2) encourage private investment in infrastructure development, public works, and tourism projects; and (3) benefit the private commercial interests of members of the Myanmar military (Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma), para. 102).
Forced labour in Myanmar/Burma involves large numbers of children and women as well as adult males. In 1998, the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights "specifically addressed the issue of women victims of forced labour. ... He noted that increasing numbers of women, including young girls and the elderly, had reportedly been forced to work, without receiving remuneration or being provided with food, on infrastructure projects and to act as porters in war zones, even when they were pregnant or nursing their infants. ... They had been reported to have been used not only as porters, but also as human shields and had been sexually abused by soldiers" (para. 190). Frequently, women, along with children of both sexes, are conscripted into corvée labour when male heads of household must work to provide the family income: in most cases, the military insists that one or more persons from a household be turned over for forced labour, but places no restrictions on gender or age. An exception to the general willingness to draft female labour is the corvée imposed upon the Rohingya people from the Rakhine State in northern Myanmar, one of the ethnic groups most extensively targeted for the practice. Among the Rohingya, "the burden of forced labour ... fell entirely on the male members of the household." (Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma)," note 644.)
Portering. The most brutal and destructive feature of forced labour in Burma, however, targets males whenever possible. This is the use of porters for military duties, especially the offensives mounted against rebels in remote and mountainous areas. According to the ILO, "Soldiers appeared to generally prefer able-bodied males to work as porters, since they were able to move more quickly and carry heavier loads. In cases where women were taken as porters, they were generally released as soon as men were found to replace them, though this could in certain circumstances be after a considerable period of time" (para. 301). As well, according to the ILO, "When troops arrived in a village, the men would often already have fled, because they feared being arrested or killed by the army, particularly in conflict areas where they might be accused of being rebels. The women usually stayed behind, because they were likely to be treated less violently. In such cases, the women were liable to be taken as porters if the troops could find no men" (para 308). Women (and child) labourers were generally given lighter loads, but "female porters were sometimes raped or otherwise sexually abused by soldiers" (para. 317).
As early as 1991, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) reported (in the ILO's summary) that
the practice of compulsory portering was widespread in the country and involved many thousands of workers: the majority of porters used by the army were forcibly recruited and harshly exploited; rarely, if ever, paid; inadequately fed and cared for; required to carry excessive loads; and exposed to acute physical hardship and danger. ... There was no formal regulation or supervision of the conditions of work of porters ... As a result, many of them died or were killed in the course of forced labour, some were used as human shields during military actions, others were shot when trying to escape or were killed or abandoned when as a result of malnutrition or exhaustion they were no longer able to carry their load. (ILO, Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma), para. 130.)
In 1993, the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights "revealed that thousands of persons had been killed since 1988 by the military 'throughout Myanmar while providing forced portering for the military.' ... Men, including [boy] children, were periodically taken forcibly from their villages to work as porters, and some of them were used to detect mines. ... Hundreds of persons taken away by force to work as porters had allegedly disappeared" (para. 174). The ILO's 1998 report stated that
Porters who walked too slowly were regularly beaten with sticks, punched, kicked, hit with rifle butts or prodded with bayonets. Porters who were persistently slow, or who were unable to carry their loads because of exhaustion, sickness or injury were often severely beaten and forced to continue, or if this was not possible they were abandoned or killed. The killing of porters who could not continue appeared to be more common in potential conflict areas. In such areas, porters were usually not shot, but were beaten to death, had their throats cut, were thrown from the sides of mountains, were thrown into rivers with their hands tied behind their backs, or were burned alive (para. 317).
The ILO's in-depth report on Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma) concludes with a ringing call for freedom (para. 543):
This report reveals a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar by the Government, military and other public officers. It is a story of gross denial of human rights to which the people of Myanmar have been subjected particularly since 1988 and from which they find no escape except fleeing from their country. The Government, the military and the administration seem oblivious to the human rights of the people and are trampling upon them with impunity. Their actions gravely offend human dignity and have [a] debasing effect on the civil society. ... The Commission hopes and trusts that in the near future the old order will change, yielding place [sic] to the new where everyone in Myanmar will have an opportunity to live with human dignity and to develop his or her full potential in a freely chosen manner[,] and there will be no subjection or enslavement of anyone by others. This can happen only if there is [a] restoration of democracy where people as a whole can wield power for their common good.
Gendercide Watch can only add its voice to this call for the liberation of the Burmese people.
The ILO and the Forced Labour Convention:
A call for reform
The International Labour Organization's Forced Labour Convention of 1930 is perhaps the most egregiously gender-discriminatory piece of international legislation in effect today. It legalizes the imposition of forced labour on one group and one group only: adult males. Article 11 states that "Only adult able-bodied males who are of an apparent age of not less than 18 and not more than 45 years may be called upon for forced or compulsory labour," so long as "they are physically fit for the work required and for the conditions under which it is to be carried out" and "the number of adult able-bodied men indispensable for family and social life" is allowed to remain in communities targeted for forced labour. (Specifically, the Convention states that "the proportion of the resident adult able-bodied males who may be taken at any one time for forced or compulsory labour ... shall in no case exceed 25 per cent.")
As Gendercide Watch affiliate David Buchanan writes in a forthcoming article for the Journal of Genocide Research, "This is so outrageously discriminatory that perhaps it is best to let the sleeping dog lie and not even raise the subject, lest some tyranny decides to use this clause as justification for the widespread use of men for forced labour -- an institution that has killed tens of millions of men throughout history. But states continue to ratify this treaty; it was Eritrea's turn on 22 February 2000." Compare the ILO's Convention with, for example, the unequivocal statement of the U.S. Fair Labor Association, "a non-profit organization established to protect the rights of workers in the United States and worldwide." The FLA's Workplace Code of Conduct decrees that "there shall not be any use of forced labor, whether in the form of prison labor, indentured labor, bonded labor or otherwise" (emphasis added).
In addition, in contrast to the "absolute prohibition" on female forced labour, male-dominated military conscription is exempted from forced-labour regulations, so long as the labour is used for military purposes. In drafting the Convention, the ILO reports, "there was general agreement that compulsory military service as such should remain beyond the purview of the Convention." Prison labour, again overwhelmingly a male phenomenon, is also exempted. (Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma), paras. 208, 211; see also the military conscription and incarceration/death penalty case-studies.)
The bias has infiltrated the ILO's reports on forced labour, notably in Burma. In the "Conclusions and Recommendations" section of its report on "Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma)," the ILO condemned the fact that "Forced labour in Myanmar is widely performed by women, children and elderly persons as well as persons otherwise unfit for work" (para. 531, emphasis added). The clear assumption is that adult able-bodied men are "fit" for such work -- i.e., as forced labourers -- within the constraints laid down by the ILO.
Simultaneously with publication of this case-study, Gendercide Watch has submitted a letter to Mr. Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO, protesting the blatant gender discrimination embedded in this antiquated piece of legislation. We call on the ILO at the earliest opportunity to outlaw completely the practice of forced labour, which is profoundly at odds with the ILO's mandate to promote "social justice and internationally recognized human and labour rights." Concerned readers are invited to make their views known to Mr. Somavia at the following address:
Mr. Juan Somavia
International Labour Organization
Route des Morillons 4
1211 Geneva 22
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