The New Slavery: an Interview with Kevin Bales

When you hear the word slavery, chances are you think of the past. You think of a black field hand in the antebellum South, picking cotton, wearing rags, a bandanna wrapped around his or her head. You don’t think of the chocolate bar you ate yesterday afternoon, or the sugar you swirled into your coffee on the way to work this morning. But these items may be as much a product of slavery today as cotton was in the nineteenth century.

In his book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press), Kevin Bales asserts that slavery is alive and well in the world today. Through products produced in the global economy, he says, slavery touches all our lives.

Slaves in Pakistan may have made the shoes you are wearing and the carpet you stand on. Slaves in the Caribbean may have put sugar in your kitchen and toys in the hands of your children. In India they may have sewn the shirt on your back and polished the ring on your finger. . . . In Brazil slaves made the charcoal that tempered the steel that made the springs in your car and the blade on your lawn mower. Slaves grew the rice that fed the woman that wove the lovely cloth you’ve put up as curtains. Your investment portfolio and your mutual-fund pension own stock in companies using slave labor in the developing world. Slaves keep your costs low and returns on your investments high.

To research his book, Bales traveled to Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil, Pakistan, and India, where he interviewed local activists and the slaves themselves. Because slavery is almost always linked to government corruption, Bales risked being arrested. In Mauritania, the country with the highest proportion of its population in slavery, he posed as a zoologist (using his membership card in the Royal Zoological Society) and photographed slaves with a camera hidden in his backpack.

Slavery is illegal in Mauritania, and everywhere else in the world. But, as Bales points out, making slavery illegal doesn’t make it disappear. As long as people are controlled by violence and exploited for economic purposes, they are slaves, regardless of whether or not a country’s laws recognize the legal ownership of human beings.

Bales is careful, however, to distinguish genuine slavery from mere poverty, paid child labor, and prison labor. And he objects to the use of slavery to describe other heinous practices such as incest, Third World debt, inequality in marriage, and even the traffic in human organs. “These things are bad enough as they are,” he says. “They don’t need to be described as slavery.” Even by Bales’s rigorous definition, the number of slaves in the world today is around 27 million — greater than the population of Canada.

Growing up in the American South in the 1950s, Bales encountered the remnants of the old slavery system in the form of segregation, but he believed that slavery itself was a thing of the past. As an adult, he became a social researcher and studied such race-related issues as housing and integration, but he didn’t become aware of slavery’s continued existence until he moved to England in the 1980s. There, he came across some pamphlets published by Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human-rights organization, founded in 1839. Horrified at the reality of modern slavery — and at the lack of attention given to the subject — Bales began using his skills as a researcher to amass as much information as he could on slavery practices around the globe. As a result, he has become the world’s foremost authority on modern slavery.

Disposable People has been translated into six languages and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the C. Wright Mills Award. Bishop Desmond Tutu called the book “a well-researched, scholarly, and deeply disturbing exposé of modern-day slavery with well-thought-out strategies for what to do to combat this scourge. None of us is allowed the luxury of imagined impotence. We can do something about it.” Bales’s most recent book is New Slavery: A Reference Handbook (abc-clio). His next book will explore the liberation and rehabilitation of modern slaves.

Bales has long been a professor at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Surrey Roehampton, in England. Just this year, however, he moved to Oxford, Mississippi, to begin establishing an American branch of Anti-Slavery International, under the name Free the Slaves.

Jensen: It may surprise some people to learn that slavery is a horror not confined to the past. What is modern slavery?

Bales: In many ways, it’s exactly the same as the slavery of two or three hundred years ago. People are still controlled by violence, allowed no free will, paid nothing for their labor, and economically exploited. And the coercive power of the slaveholder is, as always, intimately tied to the coercive power of the state. That definition of slavery applies whether we’re talking about ancient Greece, Mississippi in 1850, or Los Angeles in 2000.

But modern slavery is different, too. We live in a global economy, so slavery is more globalized than ever before. It also tends to be more temporary — slavery for a limited amount of time, as opposed to slavery over generations. And it used to be that ethnic differences were important: whites enslaved blacks, for example. Now ethnic differences are secondary to economic considerations.

Perhaps most importantly, there are now many more people enslaved. In fact, there are more slaves alive today than were brought over from Africa on the middle passage. The population explosion, combined with the economic and social vulnerability of large numbers of people in the Third World, means that there is a glut of slaves on the market. The result is that slaves have become cheap — far cheaper than at any other time in history.

Jensen: You use the word slaveholder as opposed to slave owner.

Bales: In the past, slavery entailed one person legally owning another. Today, there is no place in the world that allows legal ownership of human beings. Yet many millions of people are still slaves, meaning they’re controlled by violence, economically exploited, and so on. In many cases, nonownership turns out to be in the interest of slaveholders, who now enjoy all the benefits of ownership without the obligations and legal responsibilities.

Jensen: Wasn’t slavery “globalized” in the past?

Bales: Yes, slavery was one of the first globalized industries. The middle passage, for example, tied together the economies of Africa, Europe, and the Americas. And some slave-produced crops, such as cotton and sugar, were widely exported. But in the past, most slaves produced foods and other products for local markets. It’s far more likely today that a product of slavery is sold on the global market. For example, there is a significant use of slave labor on the cocoa plan-“tations of West Africa, and the chocolate made from that cocoa is eaten all over the planet. May-“be 40 percent of the world’s chocolate is tainted with slavery. The same is true of steel, sugar, tobacco products, jewelry — the list goes on and on. Thanks to the global economy, these slave-produced products move smoothly around the globe.

Jensen: Does everyone in the industrialized world have slave products in his or her home?

Bales: Probably. It’s difficult to be sure, however, because the global market in commodities functions as a money-laundering machine. Cocoa coming out of West Africa and entering the world market almost immediately loses its “label.” If you’re a buyer for a candy maker, you don’t say, “I’d like to buy six tons of Ghanaian cocoa.” You just say you want six tons of cocoa. When the cocoa is delivered to your factory, you can’t tell where it’s from, so you may be passing on a slave-tainted product without knowing, and consumers will buy it without knowing.

I should point out that the recent public and political awareness of slavery in cocoa production has moved both the government and the chocolate industry to action. American chocolate companies have taken the lead in a positive response to the problem. We still have a long way to go, but progress is being made for the first time in years.

Slavery has become globalized in another way, as well. It used to be that slavery was distinct in every culture: the form of slavery you found in Pakistan wasn’t the same as what you found in Thailand. But since World War ii, slavery has become more and more alike in different countries. We’re seeing a new, global form of slavery.

Jensen: You said earlier that slaves have become very cheap. How cheap, exactly?

Bales: In the United States before the Civil War, the average slave cost the equivalent of about fifty thousand dollars. I’m not sure what the average price of a slave is today, but it can’t be more than fifty or sixty dollars. Such low prices influence how the slaves are treated. Slave owners used to maintain long relationships with their slaves, but slaveholders no longer have any reason to do so. If you pay just a hundred dollars for someone, that person is disposable, as far as you are concerned.

In gold-mining towns in the Amazon, for example, a young girl might cost $150. She’s recruited to “work in the mining offices,” but when she gets there, she’s beaten, raped, and put out to prostitution. She can be sold up to ten times a night, and can bring in ten thousand dollars per month. The slaveholder’s only expenses are payments to the police and a pittance for food. And if the girl becomes a troublemaker, or runs away, or gets sick, it’s easy enough to replace her with someone else. It’s not uncommon, in some villages along the Amazon, to wake up in the morning and see the body of a young girl floating by on the river. Nobody bothers to bury them. They just throw their bodies into the river to be eaten by the fish. Antonia Pinta, a mining-camp worker quoted in Alison Sutton’s Slavery in Brazil, described what happened to an eleven-year-old girl who refused to have sex with a miner: he cut off her head with a machete, then drove around in his speedboat showing off her head to the other miners, who shouted their approval.

Slaves are so cheap that they’re not even seen as a capital investment anymore: you don’t have to take care of them; you can just use them up and throw them away. Human beings have become disposable tools for doing business, the same as a box of ballpoint pens.

And while the price of slaves has gone down, the return on the slaveholder’s investment has skyrocketed. In the antebellum South, slaves brought an average return of about 5 percent. Now bonded agricultural laborers in India generate more than a 50 percent profit per year for their slaveholders, and a return of 800 percent is not at all uncommon for holders of sex slaves.

Jensen: You’ve said there are around 27 million slaves in the world today. I’ve seen far higher estimates from groups such as the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor.

Bales: My definition of slavery — which is very rigorous — excludes a lot of really terrible practices. I agree they’re terrible; I just don’t call them slavery. Receiving wages that barely keep you alive may make you a “wage slave,” but it’s not slavery. Sharecroppers have a hard life, but they’re not slaves. Child labor is awful, but it’s not necessarily slavery. The United Nations considers some forms of marriage to be a kind of slavery. I can agree with that in principle, but because I define slavery as an economic activity, I exclude such marriage from my definition for the time being.

As for those higher estimates, I’ve been un-able to find any solid underpinnings for those numbers. Many organizations, such as Anti-Slavery International, have now adopted my numbers.

Jensen: Your hardheaded economic analysis is one thing I found compelling about your book Disposable People.

Bales: I was in-“spired to write that book because the works I’d found on contemporary slavery were long on outrage but short on analysis. I felt there was a hole there; although we should be outraged by slavery, of course, we also have to analyze it carefully before we can figure out how to put an end to it.

Jensen: You break slavery into three forms: chattel, contract, and debt bondage. Could you define them?

Bales: Chattel slavery is the kind most people have in mind, where one person owns another. Although it’s no longer legal to own someone, in some places the system still operates as if it were. You find this in Arab countries, Mauritania, and some parts of North Africa. But that kind of slavery is fading away, because it’s expensive and requires a legal context.

In contract slavery, a sort of modern labor-relations tactic is used to mask the reality of the situation. Contracts are offered that promise some sort of employment in a workshop or factory, but when the workers get to their place of employment, they find themselves enslaved. This type of slavery is always enforced by violence.

Jensen: If you’re going to use violence anyway, why bother with a contract?

Bales: The contracts entice the workers to the place where they will be enslaved and make the slavery appear legitimate: “See, you signed this contract saying you would work for me.” The reality, though, is that the “contract worker” is threatened with violence, lacks any freedom of movement, and is paid nothing. This is the most rapidly growing form of slavery and is most often found in Southeast Asia, Brazil, some Arab states, and parts of the Indian subcontinent.

Let’s use Brazil as a case study. That country, of course, has a long tradition of slavery. Soon after Portuguese explorers “discovered” Brazil, they realized they could get rich by growing sugar there for the European market. The indigenous peoples were quickly conquered and enslaved, but there weren’t enough of them to meet the demand for laborers, and their numbers dropped quickly because of overwork and European-introduced diseases. So the Portuguese brought in slaves from Africa — around 10 million of them, ten times as many as were brought to the United States. But because the death rate was so high on the sugar plantations, the slave population in Brazil was never more than half that of the U.S.

By 1854, the international slave trade was abolished, but legal slavery continued in Brazil until 1888. At that point, slavery disappeared in the coastal regions, where there was at least a modicum of government law enforcement, but it’s questionable whether it ever disappeared in the more remote interior parts of the country.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the military-led Brazilian government courted foreign investors with promises of cheap labor and lax environmental and tax laws. The economy boomed. Simultaneously, the population exploded, and the cities grew as agricultural mechanization drove even more people from the countryside. The number of malnourished Brazilians rose from 27 million to 72 million. Then the military borrowed heavily to support nuclear and mining projects, and everything went bust. In the 1980s, hyperinflation wiped out savings, and servicing the $120 billion foreign debt crippled the economy.

Today Brazil — along with its neighbor Paraguay — has the greatest economic disparity on the planet. Out of 165 million Brazilians, a mere fifty thousand own almost everything in the country, especially the land. Many millions who live in the slums are both landless and jobless. The austerity programs that ultimately brought the hyperinflation under control have devastated the health and education systems.

Brazil is still rich in resources, though — particularly iron. But to make steel from iron requires charcoal. As you might guess, the forests of the coastal region have already been turned into charcoal, and the frontier has moved a thousand miles from the cities. As the forests disappeared, skilled charcoal makers moved into the cities, hoping to find other work. Of course, they found none.

That’s where the contract slavers come in. Recruiters arrive in cities promising good jobs with good pay at charcoal-making operations a thousand miles away. They promise that workers will be driven home once a month for a visit. Sometimes they even give out money so that workers can buy food for their families. The workers sign contracts, and off they go. Along the way, whenever they stop at a cafe, the recruiter tells them to eat hearty, and he’ll pick up the tab. When they finally arrive at their destination, the laborers see that their working and living conditions are miserable, and that armed guards surround the camp. The recruiter now tells them, “You owe me for the cost of the trip, and for the food you ate, and for the money I gave your families, so don’t even think about leaving.”

The workers — now slaves — live in concentration camps. Those who run the camps don’t hesitate to use violence, because they want slaves who have given up hope and will do whatever is asked of them. At the same time, the slaveholders want their captives to work hard, so they balance the terror with promises of payment, better food, and better treatment.

Jensen: So part of what makes the system work is the slaves’ honesty.

Bales: Absolutely. Every one of the workers I met had a strong sense that his debts must be repaid, and that anyone who did not do so was the lowest of the low. In the rural villages where these men grew up, you knew all of your neighbors, and your reputation was very important. You had to keep your promises, and you had to pay your debts.

Slaveholders know this, of course, and their manipulation of the slaves’ honesty is far more effective than violence. Indeed, once the slaveholders use violence, the jig is up, because the slaves realize the truth. At that point, the violence may increase out of necessity. Many of the workers I met had been threatened or beaten and knew people who had disappeared.

Jensen: Can’t they just sneak past the guards?

Bales: Remember, they’re now a thousand miles or more from home, penniless, and in debt. And if they do get away, the locals fear them as outsiders. Also, without their identity cards, which the recruiters take from them, they can be arrested as vagrants.

The charcoal camps are their own little bit of hell in the forest. Each contains from twenty to a hundred charcoal ovens about seven feet high and ten feet wide. Charcoal is made by burning wood with a minimum of oxygen. To accomplish this, workers pack the ovens completely full of wood, very carefully and tightly. Then the wood is lit, the door is sealed, and the burn is monitored, with vents opened or closed to control the oxygen intake. When the charcoal is ready, the workers unload the still-burning ovens from the inside. I stood in one of those ovens for only a few minutes, and the heat made my head swim. The coals burned through the soles of my heavy boots. Yet the workers are in there almost naked. Their arms and legs are covered with burn scars, and many were confused when I spoke to them, almost as though their brains had been baked. They constantly coughed from the acrid smoke. If they survive long enough, most of them will develop black-lung disease.

These contract slaves are usually held for somewhere between several months and two years. By that time, they are probably too ill to be of much use, and, in any case, the forest in the region is likely to be played out. From a business point of view, it’s better just to move the camp and get fresh slaves.

Jensen: Until reading your book, I didn’t know that a lot of the environmental degradation in the Amazon is based on slavery.

Bales: It’s like the Wild West out there. Violence is used very freely, first to dispossess the people who live on the land, and then to enslave other people to do the work of destroying the environment.

Contract slavery works similarly in Thailand, where women are being enslaved into prostitution. As with Brazil, the story begins on the macroeconomic level. Joining the world economy has done wonders for Thailand’s income, but it has also done terrible things to its society. The Thai economy’s growth has been, in many respects, a social disaster, as the government has let corporations plunder the country’s human and natural resources while giving nothing back. The forests are gone. The cities have become run-down. Pollution has increased. The lives of the people whose labor enabled this economic boom are grim.

And so, as in Brazil, impoverished Thai families are being presented with contracts that seem reasonable: good work for good pay — until the young women are away from home, and things turn out differently than promised. Once again, the slaves are used up and discarded, by which time they’re quite possibly ill. Sex workers in some regions of Thailand have incredibly high hiv-infection rates.

Jensen: Sex slavery in Southeast Asia gets more press than the other kinds of modern slavery.

Bales: It does, although sex slavery sometimes gets confused in the media with sex tourism. The women involved in most sex tourism — and I say the women, not the girls — are not necessarily enslaved.

The majority of the sex slaves in Southeast Asia are used not by tourists, but by local men. The living conditions of these girls — and they are mostly children — are really horrible. They may have been sold by their parents, then “broken in” through beatings and rape. The rooms where they work might be five by seven feet and hold little more than a bed. They might service ten to eighteen men per night. Violence — from both pimps and customers — is a very real daily possibility, and escape is nearly impossible. Slaves caught trying to escape are beaten, perhaps locked in a room for days with no food or water, then put back to work. The police serve as slave catchers and abuse the girls at the station before returning them to the brothel. A slave’s working life is maybe two to five years, after which she’s worn out, and since the girls are so cheap — eight hundred to four thousand dollars, with a daily profit to the brothel of fifty to ninety dollars — it is far more economical to throw them away and find fresh girls than to keep them in good health. No brothel wants to take care of a sick or dying girl.

Once they’ve been used this way, even if they do not have a death sentence from aids, the girls — now young women — are often physically, emotionally, and mentally shattered. They’ve done whatever it takes to adjust to a life of violence and forced sex with fifteen men per day. Former slaves who are taken into shelters are often either lethargic or aggressive, full of self-loathing, depressed, confused, suicidal. Some have full-blown psychoses and hallucinations. Many feel they are unfit for any other kind of life. Recovery is very difficult.

Jensen: The testimony of Dina Chan in your book New Slavery was deeply moving.

Bales: She’s a member of the Sex Workers Union of Cambodia, and she originally gave the speech I cite before the First National Congress on Gender and Development in Cambodia.

”I want you to remember we are not ‘problems,’ ” she said. “We are not animals, we are not viruses, we are not garbage. We are flesh, skin, and bones; we have a heart; we are a sister to someone, a daughter, a granddaughter. We are people. We are women, and we want to be treated with respect and dignity, and we want rights like the rest of you enjoy.”

She had been lured into becoming a sex worker under false pretenses — one of those phony contracts — and then locked into a pig-slaughter cell and gang-raped. In the morning, she heard the pigs screaming as they were being pushed into their pens. She said, “I knew what that feeling was like: I was no better than the pigs to these men; and they could have killed me. Something inside me did die, and I will never be the same.”

When she got out of slavery, Dina Chan became a self-employed sex worker to support herself. She said, “Some of you think I’m bad because I choose to remain a sex worker. My answer to those people is: I think your society, my society, my motherland Cambodia is bad because it doesn’t give girls like me choices — choices I see are better for me. . . . I do not want to go to your shelter and learn to sew so you can get me work in a factory. This is not what I want. If I tell you that, you will call me a prostitute. But those words are easy for you, because you have easy solutions to difficult problems you do not understand, and you do not understand because you do not listen.”

Jensen: Perhaps the place to begin would be to do what Dina Chan asks, and simply listen to her and others in her position.

Bales: Yes.

Jensen: We still haven’t talked about the third type of slavery: debt.

Bales: Debt bondage is the most common form of slavery in the world today, particularly in Pakistan and India. It’s also illegal, but tends to be a little more adaptable to modern economics. Here’s how it works: A person borrows some money and pledges his or her labor as collateral against that loan. The length and nature of the service are not defined, and the profits from the slave’s labor don’t reduce the original debt: that money automatically belongs to the person who made the loan in the first place.

Jensen: So if you’re a debt-bonded slave, you’re not working to pay back the loan?

Bales: No, because you and all of your labor have become collateral. The money to pay back the loan has to come from somewhere else. That’s the way it is with most debt bondage. In some debt bondage, the work is supposedly paying back what’s been borrowed, but in reality it’s almost impossible to pay back the debt. I’ve met families in India who’ve been bonded for four generations on one debt: Great-grandfather borrowed thirty dollars, and Great-grandson is still working to pay it off. In a sense, this resembles chattel slavery, because it’s passed down through generations, except the rationale for the slavery is the debt.

There could be anywhere from 2 to 20 million debt-bonded slaves in India alone. Nobody knows for sure. The tea you drink may have been picked by slaves. Jewelry, precious stones, bricks, timber, stone, sugar, fireworks, cloth, rugs, beedi cigarettes — any of these might have been made by Indian slaves. Even the making and selling of food, carrying and hauling, caring for animals, and begging and stealing can be done by debt-bonded slaves.

Jensen: The amounts of the debts seem trivial by Western standards.

Bales: It’s heartbreaking. I talked to a farmer in India whose family had been enslaved for fifteen years. He didn’t remember the size of the original debt, but he’d been able to get it down to about nine hundred rupees (twenty-five dollars). Of course, the conditions under which he was enslaved guaranteed he would not be able to repay the whole amount. Another farmer had taken over his father’s debt of twelve hundred rupees. Three years earlier, he’d been able to get the debt down to two hundred rupees — six dollars — but his family hadn’t quite been able to make it to the next harvest, and by the time I talked to him, it had gone back up.

Jensen: Didn’t you just want to give him the cash in your pocket to get him out of debt?

Bales: It was very tempting. Many debt slaves could be freed for small amounts of money, but it wouldn’t get them out of the system that enslaved them in the first place, and it wouldn’t necessarily give them the skills or the economic resources to maintain their freedom. Look at what happened in the United States after the Civil War, when the government freed 2 million slaves without any preparation, rehabilitation, or economic support. We’re still paying the price for that botched emancipation.

When we talk about trying to end slavery, we have to remember that freedom from bondage is just the first step, not the last. To give people true freedom, you not only have to pay their debts; you have to help them to stand on their own feet.

It’s also true that the slaveholders shouldn’t be paid — by the enslaved workers or anyone else — because the debts are illegal under Indian and Pakistani law. But the laws are not enforced, usually because police and local officials are on the take or are active participants in the slaveholding process. At the village level, the landlords are typically also judges, mayors, and administrators. And the police work for them. It’s very hard to crack that type of systemic corruption.

A significant antislavery law was passed in Nepal in July of last year: it freed people in debt bondage, wiped out their debts, guaranteed them access to land, and so on. But within a month, the landlords began regular reprisals against the freed bonded laborers and drove them off their land. Now Nepal has forty to fifty thousand former slaves who’ve become refugees, just wandering the roads. The government wasn’t ready to enforce the new law and protect the rights of these people.

Jensen: It seems to me that the problem runs deeper than dishonest cops and officials. Philosophers from ancient times to the present have explicitly said that civilization is based on slavery. For example, Friedrich Engels, no fan of slavery, said, “We should never forget that our whole economic, political, and intellectual development has as its presupposition a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it is universally recognized.” Proslavery antebellum philosopher William Harper went right to the point: “Servitude is the condition of civilization.”

Bales: It’s certainly true that slavery as we know it began when human beings started to settle and farm instead of wandering as hunters and gatherers. The beginning of civilization was also the beginning of bondage.

Jensen: Harper went on to say that, without slavery, “there can be no accumulation of property, no providence for the future, no taste for comforts or elegancies, which are the characteristics and essentials of civilization.” In other words, if we in the industrialized world want cheap steel, sugar, chocolate . . .

Bales: You’re right; cheap goods exist because human suffering has taken the place of high cost. But this can also be good news, because it means rich consumers — like Americans and Western Europeans — can make a significant impact on world slavery just by stopping for a moment when they’re about to buy something and asking themselves how that particular item got to be so cheap. The inexpensiveness of many items defies belief. Part of the reason things are so cheap is that the big chain stores buy huge quantities at huge discounts, and have designed their distribution systems to reduce overhead all along the product chain. But I suspect that these efficiencies and economies of scale don’t account for all of the cheapness. You see a lot of cheap items made in China, for example, and there are serious questions about what happens in Chinese factories. The bottom line is: oftentimes things are cheap because slaves helped produce them.

Jensen: Is there a relationship between the so-called free-trade agreements and the growth of slavery?

Bales: The end of the Cold War has seen an interesting shift in the rhetoric of the Western superpowers. They used to complain about how workers in other countries didn’t have rights and were treated unfairly. Since the Cold War ended, however, Western governments have stopped raising these concerns and instead are saying that free and open markets are what’s important. So none of those free-trade agreements contains provisions to protect workers’ basic rights and freedoms. Neither the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade nor the World Trade Organization considers the quality of workers’ lives an issue. We’ve established a context in which governments can just step on people in the name of free trade. The elites of Third World countries — who control the money flowing in from industrialized nations — can operate as they please, because there is no international law, and they don’t have to answer to local laws. Many times they choose slavery because it makes them more competitive. And that’s ok, as far as those trade agreements are concerned.

Jensen: Is there a correlation between international debt and slavery?

Bales: Absolutely. I ran a statistical analysis comparing the amount of slavery in a country (based on my own research) with each country’s debt as a proportion of its gross domestic product, and I found a statistically significant relationship between international debt and slavery. Half of the countries with heavy debt loads have slavery as a regular feature of their economies, as opposed to only 12 percent of those with a small amount of international debt. Almost three-quarters of the countries with large debts regularly sell their citizens into slavery in other countries. This is true for less than a third of those countries with low levels of debt.

Jensen: So one way to reduce slavery is to forgive international debt.

Bales: That would certainly help. We have to remember, though, that a correlation between international debt and slavery doesn’t guarantee a causal relationship. But it certainly points in that direction. And it stands to reason that, if you can reduce poverty and increase economic self-sufficiency in a country, you’re going to reduce slavery.

We have to remember, too, that the “structural-adjustment” programs imposed on countries with large debt by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund decimate education and health programs. And education is probably the single most powerful deterrent against slavery.

Jensen: It seems to me that access to land is everything. To enslave people, dispossess them. To free them, return their land.

Bales: True, people trapped in debt bondage in places like India, Pakistan, and Nepal desperately need access to their own land. Once people have moved to the cities and become urbanized, though, they’re past the point where access to land alone will help — at least, in the short run. First they must regain self-sufficiency in food production and other necessities.

Jensen: You’ve written, “If we can’t choose to stop slavery, how can we say that we are free?” You’ve also cited Frederick Douglass: “If there are still slaves, how can you be proud of your freedom?”

Bales: People’s response to the challenge both of those statements make is very positive, particularly in America. I recently spent eight months in the U.S., and I was struck by how well Americans responded to the challenge of slavery when they knew about it. The crucial problem is lack of awareness. One of the key parts of my job is to raise public awareness to the point where people say, “There are a whole lot of us, and we’re going to do something about this.”

Jensen: What can we do about it?

Bales: One response is to find out what products are slave produced and refuse to buy them. We’re starting to do product tracing to help industries and consumers get out of the slavery business. Europe, for example, has something called the Rugmark Campaign. Working from a tiny office, with minimal funds, a group of activists proposed that handmade rugs carry a special tag guaranteeing they were not made by slaves.

In order to earn the “rugmark,” the producers had to agree to cooperate with independent monitors, not to exploit children, and to turn over 1 percent of their sales to child-welfare organizations. Today the German, U.S., and Canadian governments recognize the Rugmark label. So do the largest mail-order rug company in the world, the Otto Versand Group, and many major retailers in the U.S., Germany, and Holland. Rugmarked carpets have a 30 percent market share in Europe, and funds from their sales have built and staffed two schools in India. We want to develop similar certification programs for every other product, so that consumers won’t support slavery.

Another thing we want to do is use the Internet to link people in the industrialized nations to people in the Third World who are working against slavery at the grass-roots level. We’re going to use web cameras and interactive video so that people will be able to watch the Harriet Tubmans and Frederick Douglasses of the twenty-first century in action — and send them e-mails.

Jensen: So good things are happening.

Bales: We’re at the beginning of a movement. I sense a wave mounting. I’m very happy to say that, once people understand that slavery still exists, their desire to stop it doesn’t seem to be a passing fancy. They remain committed to the problem and won’t give up until they see some progress.

Originally published in the October 2001 issue of The Sun

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