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December 2002/January 2003
Slavery: Alive and Thriving in the World Today

The Satya Interview with Kevin Bales Part I


Kevin Bales
is the author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, 2000), a groundbreaking investigation of slavery today. He is Executive Director of Free the Slaves, which is working to build a global movement to end slavery and rehabilitate its victims. Many people are not aware that it still exists, yet slavery is everywhere, in numbers higher than ever before, and it’s quite different from the old form most people know. Today, slaves are extremely cheap and abundant, and thus disposable. Historically, the investment of purchasing a slave gave incentive for the master to provide a minimum standard of care, to ensure the slave would be healthy enough to work and generate profit for the long term. Today the interest is not in “owning” slaves, only in controlling them—through violence or the threat of. A slave is exploited for as long as he or she is profitable; then discarded. Here, Kevin Bales talks in more depth with Rachel Cernansky about contemporary slavery, and about what governments are, and aren’t, doing to stop it.

Most people aren’t aware that slavery still exists. Can you give a brief overview?
It surprises people that there’s actually a very large number of slaves in the world today—our best estimate is 27 million. And that is defining a slave in a very narrow way; we’re not talking about sweatshop workers or people who are just poor, we’re talking about people who are controlled by violence, who cannot walk away, who are being held against their will, who are being paid nothing. It’s the same definition that would clearly define a slave in Alabama in 1850 or in ancient Egypt, so we’re talking about real slavery. Still, what surprises people is that there could be 27 million people like that.

We’re at a very unique point in our 5,000-year history of slavery because slaves have reached the lowest price that they’ve ever been in human history. Today, the average slave around the world costs around $100. People often ask: How on earth did we get to the point of having 27 million slaves, and how on earth did we get to the point where they only cost $100?

How did we get to this point?
Since about World War II there have been a few factors that have supported this explosion in the number of slaves and their cheapening. The first is the population explosion. We all know that the world went from two to six billion people in the last 50 years, and obviously, having a lot of people doesn’t make them slaves; but most of that growth was in the developing world. We’ve also seen dramatic economic and environmental changes in the developing world which have driven a very large proportion of that population into extreme poverty, and vulnerability.

Vulnerability is the key here. When subsistence farmers are driven out of the countryside because they’ve been replaced by cash crop agribusiness, and they end up in cardboard shacks in shantytowns around developing world cities, they lose any support that was normal back home. They don’t have their temple or church, their extended family or the village network—all that gets lost. They find themselves in situations where they’re economically vulnerable because they can’t get work and they’re politically vulnerable because ruling elites have no interest in them. They’re physically vulnerable because they can’t protect themselves from people who have weapons, and they’re legally vulnerable because the police won’t enforce the law—they don’t really care what happens in the shantytowns.

Having lots of people very vulnerable doesn’t make them slaves either. But if you add police and governmental corruption to the mix, that then removes the barrier that keeps people from using violence to take control of other people. If you can pay the police to turn their heads so that you can use violence, then you can enslave people, and if you continue to pay the police to not bother you, then you can hold onto enslaved people. At the bottom of all forms of slavery, throughout all human history, is this core element of violence. It isn’t always obvious, because some slaves develop relationships with their masters or slaveholders, but it’s always there under the surface. The whole point of slavery is that you can’t walk away and if you try to, you’re kept there by force.

What are the most typical types of modern slavery?
Slavery takes all kinds of forms. There are common elements: people are controlled by violence, paid nothing, and economically exploited. It’s important to remember that slavery is a social and economic relationship between two people—it’s not a very pretty one, it may be forced and one that’s marked by extreme power differences; but it is a relationship. And as is the case with many forms of human relationships, it gets packaged or filtered through culture and history, so you end up with certain patterns of slavery, but they’re not fixed; they’re dynamic.

Debt bondage is the most common kind of enslavement around the world, concentrating in South Asia, and it actually comes in two varieties. There’s the kind that most Americans would understand: you borrow money and try to pay it back, but they keep increasing the interest rate and messing with the books so that you can never get it paid back; so you have to keep working constantly. But in fact that’s not the debt bondage that most slaves are in, there’s another kind unfamiliar to most Americans called “collateral” debt bondage: when you borrow money, you and all of your family and all the work that you do become collateral. That’s the trick: there’s no way to pay back the debt. In India I’ve met families in their fourth generation of bondage—a great-grandfather borrowed $20 worth of rupees or something, and because the family is responsible for the debt and because the family and all their work is collateral against the debt, there’s no way that you can get the money to pay it back.

In certain places, Brazil in particular, you’ve talked about the cultural ethic of honesty tying people to their debt; does that play into the continuation of collateral debt bondage?
It does. In the developing world, particularly in small communities that are not necessarily literate, a person’s word and reputation are extremely important to them. It means that there’s a culture of honesty in the agreements that people make, and slaveholders will use that to trick people, to talk to them in a way that makes it sound like there’s just a loan going on here and it’s all fair and so forth. But then the people who take the loan or the contract are actually enslaved, and even though they recognize the fact they’re enslaved, they feel a responsibility to keep their word. That can work on fairly educated Brazilians, it can also work on completely uneducated Indian bonded laborers.

How do people break out of this bondage?
The answer to that is education. Because—and I’ve seen this happen—when an Indian laborer is given a chance to see a different worldview, when someone says there is another way to look at this: let’s examine the nature of what this person’s doing to you and your family, and let’s see how that compares to the law and ideas of human rights, enslaved people can wake up to their situation very quickly. At that point it becomes very difficult to keep them in slavery. That’s a very beautiful thing: when you see people come to the realization, that phenomenal mental awakening leads them directly out of their enslavement.

Before a slave comes to this awakening, are they aware of how mistreated they are?
It’s a good question, but there’s no one answer, because with 27 million slaves you get 27 million different stories. In one situation the answer is no, they don’t necessarily know, particularly if you’re in your fourth generation of debt bondage, you may just think, This is the way life is—my family works for that family and we don’t eat very much, but that’s life, that’s reality. On the other hand, if you’re talking about someone who’s been literally abducted, kidnapped, forced into slavery, abused, tortured, these people know something horrific is happening to them, and they knew a prior reality that they want to go back to.

What are some examples of modern slavery, and why did you choose to focus your book on five particular countries?
I picked those five countries because they tended to have different kinds of slavery and I wanted to get a broad geographical spread—South Asia, eastern Africa, and South America—to illustrate how local or national forms of enslavement differ, but how they also have commonalities. There is a globalization of slavery, in which it’s becoming more and more similar as you go around the world. Thailand is an excellent example because it has gone through rapid changes and is highly integrated into the global economy. Here you have young women enslaved into brothels who clearly demonstrate the impact of the low cost of slaves. In world terms, they’re pretty expensive—one of these women, 14 to 15 years old, costs $800 to $2,000. At that price, and because they are forced to have sex with ten to 15 people a day—what is really a kind of serial rape—they generate enormous profits, something like 850 percent profit a year for the people who procured them. But these girls, these teenagers, only last two, three or four years. They become HIV positive or a cocktail of sexually transmitted diseases, they are brutalized or their mental health diminishes to the point where they can’t function anymore, or all of those things mixed together. So after three or four years, they are, in a sense, useless and are just thrown away.

That life is incomprehensible to most of us and horrific, but it shows how cheap slaves have become, how disposable they are. And how people aren’t interested in owning them, only in controlling them.

How can we hope for change when people who have been enslaved give up hope themselves—surrendering to what they see as their fate?
People rarely make a conscious decision, Oh, I’m just going to give in to being a slave. It’s like someone undergoing extreme domestic violence, who has been brutalized to the point that they are paralyzed, and they may have stopped thinking—not just about getting free, but stopped thinking altogether. I have known domestic slaves both in the U.S. and in western Europe—we’re not even talking about the developing world—who are allowed to sleep only three or four hours a night, they’re beaten and sexually abused, and isolated from any contact with the outside world. How long does that have to go on before their level of trauma is so high that they can’t make a logical or rational decision to surrender to anything? You’re talking about a person reduced to the most fundamental reactions, one of which is to escape into a nothingness in their minds to avoid this trauma they cannot avoid.

How do you help people once they reach that point?
The hope is, always, that with therapy, counseling, support and rehabilitation, you can help those people to regain a sense of their own dignity. I have met young women who have come out of a long period of enslavement in western Europe, for example, who have a hard time figuring out who they are. We all have trouble figuring out who we are when we’re teenagers, right? But with these people, it’s as if all identity has been stolen from them, except their identity as slaves. It’s really tough to find out who you are while carrying the burden of that experience. Freed slaves—not all, but some—often feel ashamed. It’s not rational, but they feel very deeply that somehow they’ve been diminished, similar to the shame some women feel after they’ve been sexually assaulted. Logically, you know it’s not their fault, they didn’t do anything, they’re victims, but they feel a kind of shame; and slaves will do the same thing.

How is slavery perpetuated so effectively?
The key factor is that it’s very profitable. It’s also criminal—virtually every country in the world has a law against slavery. And in some countries, there’s a social acceptance, where people kind of agree to not see the slavery around them because it’s part of an historical social context. Another factor is a generally accepted misapprehension in the North that slavery doesn’t exist anymore—they can see it, but they don’t know what they’re seeing because it doesn’t fit their mind view. That doesn’t help because governments reflect public views and when the public has no interest in slavery, it’s very hard to get governments to do stuff about it.

Not every law is generated by public attention or interest; why haven’t governments done more to combat slavery?
Some governments, like those of Burma and Sudan, are involved in and literally benefiting from slavery. These in my mind have to be seen as criminal governments, and highly culpable. Then there are countries that may not be directly benefiting, but turn a blind eye because powerful people are interested in it—countries like Mauritania or Niger, where there’s endemic slavery and the government has laws against it, but they don’t do much and keep denying it’s there. But most governments have suffered from the same lack of perception that the public has. It’s only been in the last four or five years that there’ve been dramatic movements by governments to take on the issue of slavery. I think most governments are willing to do something but they don’t have the resources. They have to figure out how to enforce the laws they’ve got on the books, laws they assumed they didn’t need anymore.

Aren’t there countries where slavery exists despite having a low level of corruption and a strong rule of law (like America)?
We’ve got probably 150,000 to 200,000 slaves in America. But the key difference is that the moment we uncover a slave in the U.S., we know the government’s going to take action and do the right thing. The difficulty is that people know so little about slavery, that it’s happening under their noses and they don’t know to call the police. People live next door to a family who has a slave and don’t even guess that maybe that’s what it is.

But when we raise public awareness, all of a sudden we’re going to find a lot of that will be stopped.

See Part II of this interview, “Slavery: Making the Link to our Daily Lives,” in this issue.


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