On Abolishing Slavery (Again)

Kevin Bales is president of Washington, D.C.-based Free the Slaves and a professor of sociology at Roehampton University in London. He is considered the world’s leading expert on contemporary slavery, and his book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy has become a recognized manual on the subject.

Bales has dedicated himself to combat what he refers to as “the terrible frozen face of ignorance and icy apathy of the public to the lot of an estimated 27 million slaves in the world.” In this interview with Vision contributor Bill Butler, he addresses the causes of modern slavery and offers his thoughts on dealing with it.


BB What sparked your interest in the modern development of human trafficking and slavery?

KB A number of things helped me understand questions of race, social justice and the realities of discrimination when I was a kid, including the kind of social morality my parents taught me, and this led me into work that often had to do with human rights. But it wasn’t until the early ’90s that I was exposed to some of the work of Anti-Slavery International. I was living in England, and I picked up a brochure at a public event and began to read that there were millions of people in slavery today. This really surprised me, and it piqued my intellectual, social-justice curiosity.

BB How many slaves, ex-slaves, slaveholders and government officials have you talked to in gathering information on this issue?

KB Certainly hundreds. I’ve never thought to add that up. I haven’t talked to many slaveholders—they’re a cagey group; they don’t really want to talk. But at times I’ve talked to dozens of politicians and government officials in one day.

BB With regard to trafficking, what is the single most important point you would like to get across to the public?

KB Well, one of the key things is that I don’t necessarily talk about trafficking. Trafficking is a process by which people end up in slavery, and it gets a lot of attention at the moment, but trafficking is just a small part of the global picture of slavery.

Our best estimation, which comes from recent work of the International Labour Organization, is that there are about 2.4 million people in the world who are in situations of slavery after being trafficked, which is a little under 10 percent of all the people in slavery. Most people in slavery are what you could call sedentary slaves, who haven’t been moved from one place to another. Because trafficking has gotten so much attention in the United States, a lot of people have it backwards and say slavery is a part of trafficking. But trafficking is just a process by which you take people into slavery.

But the most important thing I try to help people understand is that while there is a lot of bad news about slavery, there is actually good news too: we are living at a moment in history, probably for the first time in human history, when significant eradication of slavery is possible.

BB Do you make the same point to governments?

KB Oh, indeed, but I think governments sometimes have a hard time responding to issues of slavery because slaves aren’t voters. There is not a particular constituency that is raising a ruckus about slavery—not yet, anyway. Although, I think when the religious community begins to realize their role as they did in previous antislavery movements, politicians will pay a little more attention.

I think governments sometimes have a hard time responding to issues of slavery because slaves aren’t voters.” 

Kevin Bales

Also, politicians, like members of the public, tend to see global slavery as some kind of insurmountable problem. Because it is an ancient problem, they think it’s always going to be with us. But the analogy is a little more like polio; a time came when polio was reduced to a tiny fraction of what it had been. I think we’re there for slavery as well. Once they understand that the possibility is there and the demand on resources is not as great as one might assume, then politicians will begin to think of their legacies and like the idea of doing good work on slavery.

BB Are slavery and trafficking largely a matter of supply and demand?

KB That’s certainly a part of it. At the moment the supply of potentially enslavable people far exceeds the demand. The thing that has always driven slavery is greed. While we think of it as a horrific human rights violation and as a morally repugnant, violent form of exploitation, the key to slavery is economics. People don’t enslave others to be mean to them, they do it to make a profit. It has been a business from the dawn of time, and that’s where you’ve got to look at how to bring it to an end. One way is to look for the points of intervention in an economic process that makes it possible for someone to make a profit from a slave.

People don’t enslave others to be mean to them, they do it to make a profit. It has been a business from the dawn of time.”

Kevin Bales

BB Given the extremely complex nature of slavery and trafficking, which is more important: local action in the sending country and the receiving country, or international cooperation between nations?

KB Well, international cooperation is very important; and remember, we’re talking about trafficking now, and to have a case of trafficking you don’t have to cross an international line; you can have internal trafficking as well. But more important is what happens at the grass-roots level, where situations create a vulnerability to being enticed, tricked, duped, confused or violently kidnapped and then trafficked.

Incidentally, I see the violent side as being very rare. Most people are trafficked because they are hoping to do a good thing—usually for their own families, just like traveling to work and getting a job. It’s at that level that it is most important to squeeze off the supply. True, we must raise public awareness on the kinds of tricks that traffickers use, but we must also address the fundamental problems in the community that make people willing to consider what they know to be a pretty dicey offer. It usually involves economic desperation.

BB Should resources go primarily to establishing government policy or to public education?

KB Oh, that’s a tough one, because every case of trafficking can be very different. What would be most needed for one sending country and one destination country might be education, whereas in another place it could be government policy.

Japan has had a terrible problem with human trafficking into the country. Sadly, it’s been supported by some big holes in government policy, which they have been very slow to plug, to the point that they were giving out up to 100,000 “entertainer visas” a year. This was a euphemism for young women who were brought in from the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia and who ended up under criminal control and forced into prostitution. They could have plugged that administrative hole much earlier. That was a place where government policy would have made an enormous difference, because Japan is an island—there isn’t a free and easy open border, so you can’t just drive people in there.

In other situations it’s got to be about education. In the United States, where the border is rather more permeable, often the people who are brought in have been promised jobs that don’t exist, and they are going to end up in slavery. They are operating in a vacuum of knowledge, which sometimes proves deadly to them.

BB To what extent would you say poverty and hopelessness, as opposed to supply and demand, bear on this whole matter?

KB Well, you can’t separate poverty from supply and demand, but in many ways it’s neither; it’s a question of vulnerability. Vulnerability is determined in part by high levels of poverty, but being very poor doesn’t guarantee that you are going to end up trafficked. Poverty certainly creates the situation where desperation and hopelessness can lead to a readiness to take anything that can get you out of your situation, or get food for your children or medicine for your sick spouse. So in a sense poverty feeds the supply of potentially enslavable people. The most powerful predictor of whether or not someone will be trafficked out of a country is the level of corruption in that country. So even though you have poverty, if you have the rule of law protecting the poor as well as the rich, it’s very hard to criminally trick and abuse those people.

But many of the poorest countries are also the most corrupt. If police are turning a blind eye or are taking bribes, then criminals can do what they like in terms of both tricking and enticing people and violently taking control over them and enslaving them. It all rolls together: poverty feeds the supply, and corruption opens the gate to the exploitation.

BB Is corruption the single greatest cause of the problem then?

KB I honestly would not want to say there is a single greatest cause. You can rank them, but none of them is the absolute cause and wipes out all the others. Corruption is number one, poverty is number two, and then things that create social unrest and conflict in countries is number three.

Very often you are not going to have corruption unless you have poverty and the conflict and unrest that support it. You see this particularly in places like Bosnia. When Yugoslavia broke up and the rule of law broke down, a lot of us were shocked at the incredible speed with which enslavement and human trafficking and even the sale of people on auction blocks just mushroomed. You might say that on Monday law broke down and by Tuesday you had slavery.

BB Not only is corruption endemic in many countries, but you present a matrix of other complex problems—caste systems, history, deep-seated traditions, religion, and so on. So how can nongovernmental organizations hope to ever eradicate or even make a sizable dent in slavery?

KB Well, I have to say sometimes these things seem awfully big to me as well. But if you step back, if you take a long view, these things begin to be much more possible. We don’t have to look back very far to a United States that was absolutely rotten with governmental corruption—the period before and after the Civil War. Every city was run by a criminal organization, corruption reached up to the very top of congress, seats were for sale in congress and the senate, and so forth. Corruption went through the country like the holes in Swiss cheese. Slavery was seen as both morally acceptable and politically correct, and it was part of not only the law but the fundamental constitution.

Now take that and put it into the present day. You can’t even find a country today where slavery is a part of their constitution. True, you have areas where corruption is rife; and true, you have greed that drives people along, but you have ways to legislate against greed. The fact is that in many countries slavery was once normal and acceptable, and we’ve made an enormous change from that moment. In 2007 we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the ending of the slave trade in the British Empire—the first major step in the first antislavery movement, which had been going about 20 years before that first big accomplishment.

If we think like historians for a moment, we must not be daunted by the size of the problem. We have to be thrilled by the actual speed of change and the remarkable possibilities that are before us. If any of us had been sitting around 200 years ago and said “Let’s imagine a world where slavery is really on the run, where it is at the lowest proportion of the world population in human history, where it makes up no part whatsoever of any government’s economy or any industry’s economy, where 95–99 percent of the world’s population thinks it needs to be eradicated,” people would say you must be a dreamer—and yet that’s where we are at this moment in time.

BB Pension funds and mutual funds may buy stock in companies that are owned or operated by slaveholders in various nations, and many of the products we buy have parts that were made by the hands of slaves. What personal responsibility does an individual have for profiting to any extent from slavery?

KB There are many things we can do. But it needs a bit of explanation, because unlike the past, today no product is made primarily by slave labor. Yes, there is slave labor in cocoa, chocolate, sugar, coffee, tea, minerals that go into our cell phones and computers, cotton, and the list goes on. But the total amount of slave labor that goes into any one of those commodities is in the absolute smallest percentages—less than 1 or 2 percent, probably never more than 3 percent.

There are many things we can do. But it needs a bit of explanation, because unlike the past, today no product is made primarily by slave labor.”

Kevin Bales

Now that creates a very different situation than that of the past, where you had huge swaths of the world producing slave cotton, for instance. So this means we have to think very carefully. We may be investing, through our mutual funds, in companies that could be profiting from a little bit of slave labor in what they produce, but it is difficult for them to root out that tiny bit, or to determine where that tiny bit is occurring, because it is such a small fraction. Let’s think about cotton as an example. Any one of us may wear a cotton shirt that has a handful of thread made by slave labor. It’s important for us to understand that the culpability for that shirt lies all along the product chain—not just the retailer or the wholesaler or the producer, but all the way back.

It may occur to us as the consumer to think that if I’m going to wear this shirt or sell this shirt, I have to take part of the responsibility for how it was made. But the place to take the slavery out of the cotton is not in the local mall, it’s back at the farm where the slaves are being used. No boycott that is going to harm the 99 percent of the farmers who are doing it without slaves is going to help stop the one farmer out of the hundred who is using slaves. So address the problem where it lives, not just where it touches you.

The place to take the slavery out of the cotton is not in the local mall, it’s back at the farm where the slaves are being used. . . . Address the problem where it lives, not just where it touches you.”

Kevin Bales

We are embarked upon the fourth major antislavery campaign in human history. The remarkable thing is that this campaign has a very high chance of success in terms of global eradication. I don’t think we will ever end slavery 100 percent, but I think we can knock it down to 2 percent of what it is today. And I know that the moral underpinning, that moral center, is crucial if we are going to win this one.