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December 2002/January 2003
Slavery: Making the Link to our Daily Lives

The Satya Interview with Kevin Bales Part II


In Part I of this interview, “Slavery: Alive and Thriving in the World Today,” Kevin Bales gives an overview of modern slavery and its different manifestations. Bales also shows how slavery can devastate the psychological well-being of its victims and how challenging it is to recover from such sustained trauma. It’s very difficult to really imagine such horror; it’s even more difficult to see and acknowledge its presence in our daily lives. In Part II, Kevin Bales demonstrates how our lives are directly linked to slavery, and discusses what different groups are doing to stop it and, ultimately, what we can do about it.

If slavery were ended, how would the problem with sweatshops be affected?
There are many more people in sweatshop conditions than there are in slavery. I am not diminishing the problem of sweatshops in the least, it’s very serious, but I concentrate below that. I would be very happy if we could eliminate slavery, to then turn all my attention to sweatshops. But I feel we ought to start pulling up from the bottom, and in that process, lift everyone—so that as slave laborers move into paid labor, paid laborers move up the ladder into more decent, dignified jobs.

It seems so far removed, how does slavery touch our own lives?
We have to ask how we might be linked to slavery and not even know it, and that’s a very hard question to answer.

When you go to WalMart, for example, the stuff you find there is really cheap, so cheap that if you think about it, you think how on earth could this be?

In Brazil, we know that people are enslaved making charcoal used by the steel industry, which is a major export from Brazil. We know that American companies are invested in Brazilian steel and in the land where forests are destroyed to make charcoal. American companies are invested in beef and timber from Brazil; and slaves are used to log timber and to prepare the land for the cattle and care for them and so forth. There’s two, three, five—who knows how many—links in that chain, and it’s hard for us to actually trace them.

There’s a parallel here with multinational corporations that subcontract out to factories using sweatshop labor, which distances them from exploitation and shifts the blame.
Slavery is even further down the line than the factories. It occurs in very small units; you rarely—if ever—find a factory full of slaves. The factory may be a sweatshop, but the raw materials or bits coming into a factory may have come up from slave labor.

Can you give a more specific example of how slavery is linked to our daily lives?
Cocoa’s an easy one—the Ivory Coast is the world’s largest exporter of cocoa, and it flows directly into the U.S. I worked with filmmakers on a film based on my book; we went to the Ivory Coast and discovered horrific enslavement of young men, mostly economic migrants from Mali, who’d come down looking for work and had been forced into slavery on farms growing cocoa. How much slavery is in the cocoa from Ivory Coast we don’t know, there’s been some research on that but it hasn’t given us a clear answer. But I think we have to say that any slavery in the cocoa we eat is too much.

Hasn’t legislation related to that been passed by Congress?
This is extremely interesting. There was an amendment that would have required labeling of chocolate as slave-free; but it was withdrawn because it would have been impossible to determine—it’s this problem again of tracing the product chains. It is currently impossible to determine precisely which cocoa is slave-free. Anybody who has that label wouldn’t actually be able to prove that. It was also withdrawn because the chocolate industry agreed to work directly with human rights groups, anti-slavery organizations, and trade unions to eradicate the problem. And, speaking as a trustee of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organization, we’ve actually been trying to achieve that kind of industry responsibility-taking for 160 years. In the 1840s we were trying to get industries in Britain to take responsibility for the fact that they used slave-made cotton and sugar. Now we finally have an industry that says, Yes, we take moral, economic, social responsibility for our product chain.

It’s rare that you see an industry begin to self-regulate without public pressure.
Well they were responding to political pressure. They knew that if they had to put those labels on their chocolate bars, they wouldn’t legally be able to do it, and they would have to shut down production. So there were sticks as well as carrots here.

With regard to cocoa, what has Free the Slaves been doing?
We’re working on what’s called the “Cocoa Protocol” to establish projects in West Africa to take slavery out of cocoa. And we’re working with the U.S. government to help them change their laws. We’re trying to raise awareness and we’ve got education packs on our Web site so teachers can introduce modern slavery into the curriculum; it sort of rolls on and on like this.

Will the momentum that the fair trade movement has built leech out to slavery at all?
Oh yes. Fair trade is a crucial way to address this, but we’ve got a long way to go. The farms and fair trade cooperatives in the developing world are just a tiny fraction of what’s available. In countries like England, you have fairly traded and organic goods in almost every supermarket and major chain, but even there they tell me they can’t get as much as the public demands. And when Americans finally catch on and the demand really goes through the ceiling, it’s going to do wonders in the developing world, if they can keep up with it.

A lot of people, anti-globalization activists for example, attack the globalized economy for driving the bottom line at the expense of human rights. Is slavery the epitome of that type of human exploitation?
No, it’s not. Slavery is not essential to the global economy. The productive capacity of slaves, as I calculate it, is something like $13 billion a year in the global economy, which is nothing, 27 million people is nothing—we can have all kinds of global exploitation without having slavery [laughs]—not that I want there to be.

There’s a positive side to globalization as well. You really get that when you go to the developing world and realize that the concepts of human rights are becoming globalized. That to me is very exciting: that when I’m in rural India, where people are illiterate, and they blurt out in English, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” they know what it means—they don’t know precisely what those English words mean, but they think about human rights. There is a globalization of human rights and that intellectual globalization is very much in our favor.

Do you think that the current movement to get reparations for African Americans will bring any added awareness to modern slavery?
I think it’s an unfortunate truth that people involved in the reparations movement are not being vocal about modern slavery. They’re really concentrating on slavery in the past and I don’t fault that at all because I think we have to make recompense, there has to be some kind of adjustments for those crimes of past. But I have to say that if there were any kind of transfer of resources, money or whatever, that had to do with making reparations for slavery in the past, I would want all of that to go to stopping slavery today. People have occasionally contacted me who are working on reparations and when I tell them my views and about modern slavery, they say, Oh well, we don’t really want to include you in the discussion.

What are international bodies doing?
The UN is actually providing patterns and models for countries to adopt. There’s a new UN convention on human trafficking giving every country that adopts it—which I hope will be every country in the world—an agreed definition of what they’re working on and suggests ways for it to be effective. A lot of countries are rewriting their laws so that they match each other’s. Slavery is a global phenomenon and you have to treat it the same way from country to country because people are being moved across borders all the time.

How receptive has the U.S. government been? What kind of success have you seen?
We’re having a very positive response. I know it seems a surprise to people who tend to vote democratic, but the Republicans are very good on slavery. Administrations change, but the government doesn’t necessarily change: the people who actually manage the projects and programs, who work overseas, or work in the customs service to inspect for slave-made goods—to them it doesn’t matter which political party’s in power. They’re trying very hard, they’re doing very good things about slavery.

With free trade and Fast Track legislation, and with people so comfortable with their low-priced everything, how will awareness be generated?
Most slavery doesn’t feed into that international export market, so you can wipe away most of the slavery in the world without affecting that. Even Fast Track rules are governed by a legal mandate which prohibits any form of importation of slave-made goods.

How do you feel about redemption (the practice of “buying” slaves and then freeing them)? [See Arrowsmith in this issue.]
I certainly don’t condemn it. Free the Slaves doesn’t do it, but we don’t condemn it either. It’s a tricky one, because there’ve been very serious concerns about fraudulent use of redemption monies, of people not actually slaves who are being redeemed. I’m not personally involved in it. I understand the role for it. There are situations where redemption is almost the only way you can go forward. People feel that it might perpetuate slavery; but we just don’t have enough evidence either way.

In Sudan, for example, the total number being enslaved has decreased enormously. Because there’s a peace process going on there, the big question now is what to do about the slaves who are getting free and coming back south from the north of Sudan. Free the Slaves is involved in projects that have to do with building schools and rehabilitating slaves who are coming back.

Could you talk about the integration of freed slaves into “normal” society?
People come out of slavery and they often need medical care right away. They need nutrition, they need sleep, rest, and time to refine themselves, and they need to have conversations about what that means. Then it really begins to vary according to what people experienced and for how long. People around the world are working with those who’ve come out of slavery, but they don’t necessarily have any training, because there is no training available for slave rehabilitation; I look forward to when there is. We are at the beginning of something new. Think about something like torture for a minute: there are entire university institutes devoted to working with people who have been tortured, disciplines of psychology and psychiatry about how to work with torture victims, and yet there’s nothing like that for people who’ve been enslaved, so we’re kind of inventing it as we go along.

If individuals have never known anything but slavery, it’s a pretty long road; if they were enslaved for a short period and they know how to live a life as a free person, that’s something else. The good news is that, for a lot of slaves, the one thing that they really know how to do is work, and given the opportunity to work for themselves, they often rapidly achieve a kind of economic stability.

When people think of slavery, they usually think of the book Roots by Alex Haley and the TV mini-series based on it. Do you ever talk about Roots in your work?
One of the things that’s interesting about Roots is the characters came from West Africa, Kunta Kinte is captured in West Africa. The point is, you can go to cities on the eastern seaboard, including New York, and find enslaved domestic workers from those same countries today.

What can people do?
The key job in North America is to raise awareness. There’s a sort of three step process; it sounds a little vain, but the first is to read my book—or buy it because all the royalties go to anti-slavery work (I don’t make a penny off it), so even if you buy it and never read it, you’ve done something. Step two is join with people that you agree with, people who’ve decided that something has to be done to stop slavery. Third, help organize a direct action. I suppose it’s: read, join, act. Because once you join and you’re in action, you become part of that process towards a solution.

What do you see as hope for change?
I have a lot of hope. I know that 27 million’s a big number, but there’s no economic or political argument now for slavery. Except for one or two criminal countries like Burma, every country is saying it’s illegal and is committed by law to do something about it. We’ve won the moral, economic, and political argument; the step that has to be taken now is public awareness and action and—as an extension of the public—governmental awareness and action.

The number of slaves is very high, but the cost of actually helping people out of slavery is very low. Sending an activist around India, for example, to talk to people about alternatives to their bondage is very cheap. When the resources are there it can be done. It may sound crazy after talking about such huge numbers, but with sufficient mobilization this really could be the generation that brings slavery virtually to an end—for the first time in human history, we could say we pretty well wiped it out.

To learn more about Free the Slaves and its projects, visit For detailed information on modern slavery, visit, the comprehensive Web portal of the American Anti-Slavery Group.


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