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Slavery is alive and well around the globe


By Kevin Bales
University of California Press, 298 pages, $16.95


Slavery in the year 2001? Yes indeed, in the United States, in England, in France. Plenty of it.

Kevin Bales, whose research on this subject has taken him to Thailand, India, Pakistan, Mauritania and Brazil, estimates the slave population of the world today at 27 million. That is more than all the people stolen from Africa during the centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Other activists give estimates that run as high as 200 million.

Under the old slavery, one person legally owned another. Today slavery is illegal everywhere. When people buy slaves, what they get is control, and they use violence to maintain that control.

The new slavery is a booming business, and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves. And when they are finished with them, they just throw them away. This new slavery focuses on big profits and cheap lives. People become completely disposable tools for making money.

Slaves are all around us. Bales reports instances of young girls forced to be prostitutes in cities in England, others held captive as domestic servants in London and Paris. Farm workers have been found in the United States locked in barracks and working in the fields under armed guards. Enslaved Thai and Philippine women have been freed from brothels in New York, Seattle and Los Angeles.

Evidence at a criminal trial in New York City in 1995 established that 30 Thai women had been locked into the upper floors of a Manhattan building. Iron bars sealed the windows, and a series of buzzer-operated gates blocked access to the street. The brothel owner testified that she had bought the women outright, paying between $6,000 and $15,000 each. They worked from 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.

Only relatively small numbers, however, are involved in this kind of slavery. More than half of the world’s slave population is represented by bonded labor in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Otherwise, slavery is concentrated in Southeast Asia, northern and western Africa, and parts of South America.

Perhaps the most macabre story in Disposable People is its description of sex slavery in Thailand. Families in impoverished villages in the north sell their children to brothels in the prosperous central plains. They have done this traditionally because they were starving. Now there are new incentives. Consumer goods are available, and a television can be bought for a child. At age 15, the girl is constantly raped and beaten until her will is broken. She gets regular HIV tests and injections of contraceptive drugs. If she proves HIV-positive, she is thrown out of the brothel to starve.

The “concentration camp” method of enslavement is practiced also in the forests of the Amazon, but with a different kind of slave. Slum dwellers are recruited in the cities with promise of steady work and good pay, then moved in cattle trucks hundreds of miles to charcoal camps. On arrival they are told they are already in debt for their transport and the food provided on the journey. The boss takes the identity card and labor card as collateral. He charges for food and lodgings. When the forest around the camp has been consumed in two or three years and the operation closes down, most are still in debt and simply abandoned.

Bales offers no simple formula to end slavery. While the labor supply exceeds the worker needs of society, we will have slavery. But, he argues, the strategies that work best to stop overpopulation are the same that are needed to wipe out slavery. They are education and social protection against poverty in old age and illness. “In the long run,” he concludes, “wiping out slavery requires helping the world’s poor to gain greater control over their own lives.”

Gary MacEoin lives in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001