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Question: What are some signs of slavery that people should look out for?

Kevin Bales:  You know one of the ways that people often see slavery for the first time -- it's very common to see slavery in other people who see slavery of domestic servants.  You know, it's harder when people are say locked into a factory or locked into a brothel.  That's more difficult.  But domestic servants are people who are... can be enslaved in the United States that you often hear people say after a case has broken: "Wow I saw that girl.  I saw that woman lots of times.  I never would have guessed that person was a slave."  And yet they would then say... and name the very warning signs.

"This person really seemed to be under the age of employment and yet wasn't in school and in fact I would see them working all hours, often dressed very inappropriately for the weather.  They would often seem to be frightened or injured or have bruises.  When I attempted to talk to them they were fearful and didn't seem to understand where they were.  They often seemed sleep depraved and hungry, and even asked me for food once."  I mean, one of the ways that people control people who they enslave is through sleep depravation and regular just malnutrition, starvation.  Keeps them off-balance and confused.

Those sorts of situations, sure it's possible that there's someone in your neighborhood, that you saw someone like that and it was actually, I don't know, somebody's disturbed teenage kid.  But it's also possible that it's just worth asking the question because it won't always be the case that as happened near where we're sitting today, in New York, you know, somebody manges to escape and find their way to a donut shop where they call the police officer.  And leads to a big bust like the one on Long Island recently of the couple who had two Indonesian women who they'd kept several years as slaves and tortured them and so forth. It's usually not that dramatic and it needs the sharp eye of people around. 

Question: How does one gather statistics for slavery when it is such an underground practice?

Kevin Bales:  Yeah, you know, for a lot of my career I was a professor of social research methods at a university in Great Britain and I have to say the study of slavery is one of the great challenges, methodical challenges, for social scientists.  And a lot of people shy away from it for that reason, because it's a hidden crime.  It's an absolutely hidden crime.  And it's impossible to collect solid numbers.  So that means that you're normally always looking for a way to triangulate.

You know, you're saying: "If I can find law enforcement arrest data here plus news reports over here and maybe I've got some traffic flow data over here.  And some anecdotal stuff here or maybe a service provider who takes care of people who have been liberated from slavery that we can collect survey information from so we can build a little circle or globe of data points around the actual phenomenon of slavery and being to extrapolate what that means."
Now what that does mean is that our margins of error are pretty high but at least we can calculate them—and I don't want to get all nerdy and statistical on this—but there are have been several times that have gone to work on this some in the United Nations and some in academic... in the academic world.  The thing that I'm feeling pretty confident about is that most of those teams have come to the same basic estimations of about 27 million people in slavery worldwide around that number.  It could be up or down five million but we think that's the right kind of shape of problem. But it is a tough one to study and it's going to continue to be because with slavery illegal in every country it stays pretty hidden.

Recorded on September 24, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, October 23 2010


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