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Kevin Bales is an anti-slavery advocate and the president of Free the Slaves, the U.S. sister organization of the world's oldest human rights organization Anti-Slavery International. He is also a[…]

A conversation with the anti-slavery advocate.

Kevin Bales:  My name is Kevin Bales. I am the President of the Free the Slaves Organization.

Question: Is modern slavery different from slavery in the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Kevin Bales:  You know a lot of Americans have this absolutely 19th Century framework in their minds about what slavery is and they tend to think that is slavery, forgetting the fact that slavery has actually been around since the very first records of human history.  And that its taken a lot of different forms across that human history but then in fact slavery itself has always been the same thing.  Now that's 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.

Violence is used to maintain that control and that there's economic exploitation derived from that violence.  And if you understand those, the key criteria of what slavery means you understand then that applies to all slavery throughout all human history. 

Question: What forms does modern slavery take?

Kevin Bales:  You know the forms of slavery that we have around the world today, many of them are not modern.  I mean, they're actually ancient in their form. And a classic example of that is hereditary types of what we call collateral debt bondage in South Asia.  Where I've met families in their fourth and fifth generation of slavery.  So there are many types of slavery.  And also in like North and West Africa hereditary forms of slavery that are pretty much unaltered for hundreds and hundreds of years.

But at the same time the key change that's brought about forms which are unique to the 21st Century has to do with the complete collapse in the price of human beings. And that's generated a kind of disposability for the very first time in slavery.  Throughout all of human history slaves have been expensive capital purchase items. And today they're disposal inputs like styrofoam cups to an economic process.  And that means the slavery of today differs in some places because it can be very short-term, highly intensive, and then lead to a disposability of the person involved.

Question: Why has the price of labor collapsed?

Kevin Bales:  Well, the collapse in the price of human beings rests very clearly and understandably on a simple supply-and-demand equation.  We've had a population explosion in the last 50 years.  You know, we're up at almost seven billion people on the planet and most of that growth has been in the developing world. The other factor that makes people extremely vulnerable to enslavement is the lack of the rule of law.  So when there's corruption or the lack of rule of law, people are not protected by the rule of law. And it means that if I have power or violence I can take control of a human being.

Now, put those two things together, huge population growth, lack of the rule of law, see where the overlap is and what you see is that there's about... there's a pool of about six to seven hundred million people who live in countries where the rule of law doesn't protect them.  And they live on extreme deprivation and economic vulnerability.  That means they're harvestable.  Now what that also means is that there's a glut in the supply of potential slaves.

And it sounds almost a crazy thing for me to say but if there's any good news here it's that we only have 27 million people in slavery in the world given that we have a pool of potentially enslaveable people as high as 700 million. 

Question: How does someone become a slave?

Kevin Bales:  Most of the people who come into slavery today, you know, the people who enter into slavery for the first time in the present moment, are not captured, they're not knocked over the head, it doesn't follow the old sorts of mechanisms.  The primary mechanism of enslavement is someone coming along and saying to them "Would you like a job?"  And because of their economic desperation... 

Think of refugees.  Refugees have lost their homes, have lost their livelihoods, they've got their kids with them, their kids are starving, you know, it's an extreme vulnerability. And somebody shows up and says, "You know, I've got a job.  Would you like to have a job?  I've got a job.  I'm going to pay you and you're going to be in good shape."  And even if they feel the person offering them the job is highly dubious or looks sketchy, they're thinking, "My kids are hungry.  I've got to take the chance."  And so they... 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.

And the result is a hundred miles later or three hours later, or whatever it takes to get them separated from family and community and into a place where they can be controlled, then the violence begins or the threat of violence begins.  And it becomes clear that they've been enslaved.

Question:  How do you emancipate slaves without buying them from their owners?

Kevin Bales:  Well, we never buy slaves with one possible exception—I'll explain what that is... But buying a slave is like paying a burglar to get your television back.  It is simply is abetting a crime that everyone recognizes as a crime.  Now that said, we do have a kind of quiet internal rule that if the rule of law does not apply in a situation where we are and we see somebody like a kid who's in slavery right in front of us, who's under threat of immediate violent treatment, and we can't do anything to relieve or guarantee the safety of that child except somehow to pay for slaves, we would do it.  Of course we would do it.  It's morally reprehensible, it's the worst of the options, but if the choice is between doing what you don't want to do but some child say is suffering real pain then you do what you don't necessarily do.

But except for that exception never buy people out of slavery.  The way that people do come to liberation is various.  I can't... it's hard to say there's a single way because there are so many different types of slavery that there's not a silver bullet.  There has to be like a box of silver bullets.  But as an example, children kidnapped into slavery in Northern India and put into basically closets where they weave rugs 16 hours a day.  The only way to get those kids out of slavery is you've got to kick that door in.  You've got find that closet where they're locked up with a loom.  You've got to kick the door in.  You've got to grab them, and you've got to get away from there before the thugs that work for the slaveholders chase you down, beat you up, and take the kid back.

Now obviously also that's not me.  I'm the wrong color.  I'm the wrong size.  I don't talk the right language, so that's the liberation workers... the liberators on the ground that work with us and for us who do that very dangerous and amazing work.  But in other places it's about community organizing.  I mean, it's almost like an Obama community organizing model.  You have to go into communities where slavery has been embedded for a long time and you have to begin getting people discussing what they want out of life and if they want to continue in this kind of situation.  They don't.  They never do and especially the women really want to leave it behind. And help them to achieve that moment when they have made a collective conscious decision to work for their own freedom and then stand with them as they stand up in that crisis moment to a slaveholder, who's always going to try to use violence to hold onto their property. 

So a great deal of liberation is about that direct intervention and the other part of it is kind of less exciting and interesting.  But we wouldn't have to do those direct intervention rescue rehabilitation liberation exercise if governments enforced their own laws against slavery. So of course we'd rather they'd do the work for us and did what they promised to do.  So a lot of time we spend, not het majority of our resources but we spend a fair bit on getting governments prepared and ready to go to enforce their own laws and helping them to do so as best we can.

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.

Question: What are the five worst countries for human trafficking?

Kevin Bales: The five worst countries for human trafficking and slavery... it's an interesting approach because you have to in a sense define "worst." You know, if you want to talk about raw numbers you have to look at India that has the most raw... the largest raw number of slaves of any country in the world.  But or course there's more than a billion people in India so it's about what's the proportion.  And then if you want to think about some concept of severity when you say "worse," you have to look at a country like Burma where the ruling military dictatorship junta is actually involved in enslaving its own citizens.

And so if I had to, like, list them out, you know, I would point to Burma, even though it's a small country with not a lot of people in slavery.  I'd point... I'd think about India simple because of the extremely large numbers of people in slavery there.  Nepal, Pakistan as well have large numbers.  I'd look at a country like Japan where they have superlative law enforcement but they also have, very sadly, a very strong culture preference which is sexist and somewhat racist about women who come from non-Japanese cultures. And a willingness on the part of law enforcement there to ignore the plight of enslaved people, and particularly women who've come to Japan.  So you have Japan with a superb law enforcement system but probably more than 100,000 people in slavery within Japan which is just worse in the sense that they could solve their problem very quickly but they're choosing not to—as opposed to the citizens of the country like Burma who can't do a thing because their country is being run by a junta of thugs.

Japan, India, Pakistan. Probably have to point to Niger, where hereditary forms of slavery are continuing while government winks at it.  And then of course you have to look to those countries where rule of law has completely collapsed, like the Congo, certainly in the eastern part of the Congo.  Armed gangs from Rwanda and other places run that part of the world.  They're in conflict with each other but they're actually enslaving people in very high proportions of the population.  So "worst," you know, I try to always avoid the invidious comparison of saying which kind of slavery is worse than any other because it's all pretty awful but there area certainly places where the governments could do a lot better.  And Japan is one and Congo is one, and really the United States is one as well. 

Question: What misconceptions do people have about slavery in the United States?

Kevin Bales:  Gosh, I'd say there's probably two misconceptions that Americans have about slavery that are pretty dangerous.  One is: "We don't have slavery here."  Which we do.  We absolutely do.  And the other is that it's all about enslavement.  If they know about slavery, they think it's all about enslavement into prostitution of woman from overseas.  The facts are that, very conservatively measured, very conservative measure would say we have probably 50,000 people in slavery in the United States.  Some people would put that number much higher.

But what we also know is that the number of people who are in enslaved in sexual exploitation into prostitution is less than half of that total, to the best of our understanding.  Now again, it's a hidden crime.  It's a criminal, you know, episodes so it's hard to get the tight numbers. But to the best of our understanding.  And so what that means is that slavery exists all around us in the United States and people tend to be very unaware of it.  And literally it could be in your neighbor's backyard.  It could literally be in the restaurant where you had a meal, you know, a few nights ago and so forth.

And what we're missing then is the idea that slavery is in our country—that it's always been in our country.  There's actually never been a day in the history of the United States without slavery.  But of course the other, I guess if it's a misconception or really a big idea that nobody has quite come to grips with is that we could actually be a slave-free country.  And we could be a slave-free country in a way that would be a first in human history.

Question: Is the U.S. government doing enough to combat slavery?

The government has promised that we will not have slavery in this country in the same way that the police say, "We're going to do our best to make sure there's no murder in this country."  Well, when you compare the amount of money which is the low-100 million zone to stop the crime of slavery in this country and you compare it to the billions, about four-in-a-half billion, which are spent on homicide you begin to realize these two extremely serious crimes are not getting the same treatment.

And a perfect example of this is that the State department suggests that something alike 17,000 people are brought into the country every year to be slaves—trafficking victims, 17,000 every year in the United States to be new slaves in America.  The homicide rate in the United States is almost exactly 17,000 a year as well.  So we've got 17,000 new slaves and 17,000 murder victims and yet we spend over four billion on the homicide and under a hundred million on the slavery.  We have a homicide detective and unit in every police department in the country and how many slavery and human trafficking units do we have?

Last count I made was about seven.  Twenty thousand police departments, maybe seven of them had anybody... even an individual part-time who's devoted to slavery.  It's a very odd situation that we have a crime almost as serious as murder getting no attention.  And that's one of the things we've got to do to make this a slave-free country.

Question: What are the first known records of slavery, and how has it evolved since then?

Kevin Bales:  One of the things that I get all excited about but I'll never be able to resolve intellectually, is the origin of slavery.  We know that slavery is prehistoric, and we can say that because the very first stylus-on-clay-tablet cuneiform records of ancient Samarra which are the very first human records are records of slavery.  The price of slaves, counts of slaves, how they were acquired through conflict, and so forth.  So clearly it was not just existing before the first written records, it was existing in a fairly sophisticated way.

And there's a question in my mind that I'll never be able to resolve but I find it a wonderful intellectual challenge is to think: "How does any human being come to the point where they can completely control another person use for violence and use that violence to exploit people?  How did that evolve in the prehistory of human societies?"  In their most permeative, if we still use that word but their earliest forms, there seems to be a kind of familial model, the idea that, you know, the way that you can control offspring can sometimes be total and violent control and be explorative as well. I mean, we don't want to do that these days with our middle-class kids but you look back and you see that. 

It also seems that as you look at prehistory and early history, and I mean, really early history, Iron Age stuff, you begin that period of the domestication of animals.  And the nature of enslavement begins to shift from what I would think to be a familial model, a family model, to an animal domestication model, so that you actually get to the point where Aristotle writes, "The ox is the poor man's slave."  In other words he's equating the ox and a slave and saying, you know: "If you can afford it, you'll buy a human, but if you can't afford it you'll end up with an ox." Which is kind of interesting because oxen were very expensive. 

Now what does that mean?  Well, it means it's also... slavery is also pre legal.  You know, the code of Hammurabi the famous one that we study at university because the first written legal code.  If you actually read that straight through what you discover is about 30 percent of the code of Hammurabi is about slavery, which tells us that it was a highly sophisticated part of that society before they even wrote the laws down.  So it was pre-legal in a sophisticated way and had to be included in that.

It's also pre-monetary so that when we have those moments where see here's the invention of money we discover that they come after the records of enslavement.  So pre-monitory, pre-legal, prehistoric is a fascinating question in my mind.  Like how does slavery even began and then what does it evolve into?  There's never been a day in human history without it.  It doesn't... it's not in every society however and that's also kind of important because it's not an integral, inherent part of the human existence.  There are plenty of societies that have existed for thousands of yeas with no slavery whatsoever.

And there's of course that part in all of us as individuals that says, "I don't want to enslave anybody but even more importantly I don't ever want to be enslaved."  So it's not like we're born to slavery and yet its been this kind of semi-permanent condition. And it's evolved to respond to almost every type of economic and political change that's occurred in 5,000 years.  So you see an empire like the Roman Empire that runs on slavery the way America runs on oil, you know?  All the wars of conquest on the expansion of the Roman Empire were fueled exactly by conquest of geographical areas and the harvesting of entire populations to the slave markets of Rome, or to other main cities, that would then bankroll the payment of the legions and the armies and so forth.  And you see this interesting expansion and contraction of slavery linked to almost all imperial growth.  The Ottoman Empire and then the European empires of the 18th and 19th Century, instead of taking it over all physically and making it all colonies but it's all about the harvesting of the slaves for North America... until you even get into the modern late 20th Century, early 21st and you had this new globalization form of empire-building where you don't take physical possession of the land but you still take physical position of the people, at least temporarily as inputs into just-in-time economic processes.

So 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. 

Recorded on September 24, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller