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Kevin Bales: How to End Modern Slavery

The word “slavery” has a very specific resonance for Americans. But slavery is a practice that has existed since the very first records of human history, and it continues to this day, says anti-slavery advocate Kevin Bales. “Part of the challenge of today is helping people understand that slavery is not just about Africans being brought to cotton fields, but in fact it’s about a person who’s completely controlled by another person.”

In his Big Think interview, Bales explains that poverty is what enables slavery to persist. “Most of the people who come to slavery today walk into slavery of their own volition, doing what you or I would do in exactly the same situation. If our kids were hungry, we’d step into slavery,” he says. Bales also explains how his organization Free the Slaves works to emancipate those caught in slavery. Because there are so many different types of slavery, there is no “silver bullet,” he says. Every case is different. In northern India, for example, children are “put into basically closets where they weave rugs 16 hours a day,” he says. “The only way to get those kids out of slavery is you’ve got to kick that door in…You’ve got to grab them, and you’ve got to get away from there before the thugs that work for the slave holders chase you down, beat you up, and take the kid back.”

Bales estimates that there are 27 million people living as slaves today, a shocking figure. Perhaps even more shocking is that this practice exists not just in developing countries but also in our own backyards (literally). Very conservative estimates place number of slaves in the US at 50,000. And only half of that number is in the sex industry; the rest could be in large factories or in the kitchens of your favorite restaurant. Bales tells us some tell-tale signs about how to spot slavery in your community.

Bales also lists some of the worst countries for human trafficking, like Burma, “where the grueling military dictatorship junta is actually involved in enslaving its own citizens.” He also points to places like the Congo and Rwanda, where the law has completely collapsed. Surprisingly, ultra-modern Japan is also haven for slavery because its culture is “sexist and somewhat racist about women who come from non-Japanese cultures,” says Bales. There is also “a willingness on the part of law enforcement there to ignore the plight of enslaved people and particularly women who’ve come to Japan.

Finally, Bales gives us a brief history of slavery as it has existed since pre-historic times. The very first human records were records of slaves, he says. “Anything that we’ve been able to think up as human beings clever or evil in terms of economic exploitation somebody has always been able to figure out a way to build slavery into that as well.”


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