Why There Are 27 Million Slaves in 2010

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.

Recorded on September 24, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Slavery is not just about Africans being forced to work in cotton fields—it’s an insidious practice that has existed throughout history and continues to this day, thanks in large part to the plummeting price of human capital.

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