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Who's in the Video
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[…]

Most modern slaves are people who, driven by economic desperation, agree to take jobs far from their homes thinking they will help feed their families. Only when they are severed from their community do they realize what has happened.

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.

Recorded on September 24, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller