Slavery in the world

Kevin Bales, a leader in the abolition movement to end modern-day slavery. He estimates some 27 million people labor as slaves today—more than at any time in history.

In 2001 Kevin Bales founded Free the Slaves, the American sister organization of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights group. He has worked to liberate thousands of slaves in India, Nepal, Haiti, Ghana, Brazil, Ivory Coast and Bangladesh. He’s also helped expose modern-day slavery right here in the United States, where he estimates between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year.

Kevin Bales talking:

In the United States, our best estimates are that there are about forty to fifty thousand people in slavery at any one time, and that’s a very conservative estimate. I’m talking about real slavery. If you look at slavery across all human history, and you sort of strip away the packaging, whether it’s racialized or religious-based, and you look at the actual core of the slavery, it’s one person completely controlling another one. They use slavery to maintain that control. They use that control to exploit them economically, and then they don’t pay them anything. But the key is the violent control.

A classic example would be slavery in agriculture in South Florida. People are lured into the United States, promised a good job, but when they arrive in Immokalee County in Florida, they find themselves at gunpoint, picking tomatoes, picking oranges, locked up at night, brutalized if they try to escape or brutalized if they try to protest in any way, obviously paid nothing. It’s a kind of slavery, you simply can’t walk away. And in some ways, that’s the key—one of the key questions we ask if we’re trying to decide: is this case slavery? The first rule of thumb is, we say, can this person walk away, even if it’s into a worse situation?

an amazing case that I know very well is that of Given Kachepa. Given was born in Zambia. He was an eleven-year-old when—and very active in a local choir, a boys’ choir, when a man from Texas heard them sing in Zambia, thought—and convinced them that if they were to come with him to the United States, they could sing in churches, raise funds to build schools, and improve their families’ lives in the extreme poverty of Zambia.

And he brought them over to the United States, got visas for them as a touring boys’ choir, and then enslaved them, so that they were taken from church to church, they were not fed regularly, they worked twelve- and eighteen-hour days, they slept all in one small trailer. If they complained about their treatment, they were denied food, they were beaten. And if they weren’t singing to raise money in this charity scam, they were given jobs like digging the holes for swimming pools.

He was eleven years old when this happened. Remarkably, it was actually at that time an immigration agent that figured out something was wrong, couldn’t quite understand what was wrong, but figured out something was wrong, and began to dig into the situation. And ultimately, Given was freed. He was an orphan in Zambia. And one of the families of a church where they had sung took him in. And now I’m just very excited, because I just got the news last week that he had finished university and passed his exams to enter dental school.

Most of the people who are enslaved in the United States, if they come out of slavery, it won’t necessarily be through the police; it’ll be through either a service organization, often of their ethnicity, say a Chinese American group or a West African group, who will help them to find their way through.

Or it’s people like you and me, neighbors, who will say, “I don’t know what’s going on next door, but I don’t like the looks of it.” And they will begin to dig around and think about it and help people. About a third of the people who come out of slavery in the United States come out of slavery because an active person in the community has done the right thing.

There’s a whole raft of serious problems within our immigration controls that creates situations in which it makes it very easy to enslave people. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One is the guest worker system. We have a guest worker system that was put into place in the 1940s. It allows farm owners and sometimes factory owners to apply for a special visa to bring what are called guest workers into the country. The law itself is a pretty good one, and it allows for the inspection of these workers and their job conditions, and it guarantees them certain rights. The difficulty is, we have no labor inspectors assigned to this to speak of. Only a tiny handful for the hundred—for the thousands and thousands of people in this situation. The result is that most people who bring in guest workers know they’ll never be checked up on. So they bring them in, and they put them to work in any way they like, never pay them, use brutality to control them, lock them up at the same time.

And one that’s very shocking to me is the difference between—and a very racialized difference, for young girl—young teenage, nice, middle-class European girls who want to come over to be an au pair. There’s a special visa for that. It’s called the J1 visa. It comes with guarantees, inspections, monitoring, orientation classes, education provisions. Fantastic. They come to be an au pair. They get a wonderful experience in our culture. They get a chance at a better education, so forth. But if you’re the same girl but you happen to be from West Africa, you come in on a B1 visa: no guarantees, no monitors, no education provisions, no inspections. They check your passport at the airport, and after that moment, you can be anywhere. It’s like a conduit, like a funnel, into the enslavement of young domestic workers.

The difference between B1 and J1 visas simply seems to be institutionalized legal racism. Just under half of the people enslaved in the United States, we believe, are enslaved into prostitution.

The flow of people into the United States into slavery, it follows the other types of immigration into the United States, so people who are trying to build new lives, trying to build a better life. Many enter illegally; some enter legally. But the situation that turns it from smuggling or immigration into slavery is what happens when they get here, so that if they may believe they’ve got a real job, they may believe they have a legal job, but when they arrive, then someone says to them, “Actually, no. You do what we tell you from now on. If you don’t, you get hurt.” So it’s about the stepping into a criminal situation.

people are searching for ways to improve their lives and often just to get jobs to feed their kids. And recruiters around the world, whether it’s Central America or Eastern Europe or the Far East, say to people, “We have a job for you. We have a way for you to get to the land of plenty and have a better life,” and convince them and, interestingly, often get them to pay for their own enslavement, say, “We can get you there, but in fact we’re going to need you to pay a fee to cover your transport costs and so forth.” So, a lot of people who come into slavery in the United States walk into slavery and pay for the privilege of being enslaved into prostitution, agricultural work, domestic work, sweatshop work, you name it.

Around the world, about 27 million. That’s a number that’s now been corroborated by several other sources. Most of the people in slavery around the world are in South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal. Most of them are in very dirty, simple forms of work that we can all imagine people in slavery: agriculture, working in quarries, mineral extraction, and so forth. Most people in slavery are not human trafficking victims. They’re in sedentary forms of slavery. And there’s still a great deal of hereditary slavery in the world. Probably ten to twelve million people are in forms of hereditary slavery. Something called collateral debt bondage in South Asia is often—normally hereditary.

It’s an interesting wrinkle that they hadn’t quite figured out, you know, in the subprime world here, which is that when you loan money to a family that’s very, very poor and has no assets, you only loan it to them if they agree to give themselves, their bodies, their family, and all of their work, as collateral until the loan is repaid. But you can see the catch-22. If you can’t—if everything about you belongs to the slaveholder, to the money lender, until it’s repaid, how do you ever repay it? Because they own your work and they own you as collateral until the repayment happens. So the debt passes from generation to generation. I’ve met—I don’t know—hundreds of families who are in their fourth, fifth—that they can remember—generation of enslavement against an original debt that could be $10.

we do that in a whole number of ways. There’s not a single silver bullet. Sometimes it’s literally about kicking in doors, reaching in, in northern India, for example, to carpet looms, where children have been enslaved, tricked, kidnapped and enslaved. And you have to kick in the door, grab them and take them away before the thugs arrive, and get them to the rehabilitation center.

But in some places where it’s a community which is—we actually call it the Fannie Lou Hamer model, because we go into communities where the entire village will be enslaved in a hereditary debt bondage, working in a quarry or working in agriculture, and we have to do it very subtly, like community workers, organizers, and say, “How long have you been like this? Oh, you all work for the same man? Where’s the school? There’s no school? Oh,” and then, in time, begin to say, “You know, there’s a village down the road that used to be just like this one, but they have their own school now, and they work for themselves,” and slowly open up the idea of freedom for families who haven’t known freedom for generations. And the beautiful moment is when that group of families and the village take the collective conscious decision for freedom. And then we stand with them as they step out to freedom and hit that moment of crisis, when the slaveholder is ready to use violence to keep them in their place.

Many of the products that we use, from coltan in our cell phones to cocoa to sugar to coffee, are touched by slavery.

The real challenge of this, though, is that, unlike the slavery of the past, where, say, almost all the cotton out of the Deep South had some touch of slavery in it, today maybe two or three percent of the cotton has slavery in it. Maybe two or three percent of the cocoa has slavery in it. And what that means is that simple responses like boycotts of products are actually counterproductive; they harm the majority of farmers who don’t use slaves in an attempt to hammer out the ones who do. And it makes it a little more challenging and a little more complex.

But the way that we’ve discovered that works best is actually to, instead of, say, attacking corporations and boycotting corporations, who don’t do the farming on the ground, who are actually just part of that system of production and distribution, but bringing them into the mix and getting them to pay for the work on the ground. Now, we’ve done this with the chocolate industry to what I think is enormous success. And about $50 million has been transferred out of chocolate company profits over the last seven years into work on the ground in West Africa to remove slavery and child labor from cocoa production. Now, that’s money that never would have come to human rights, never would have come to anti-slavery work, if we hadn’t brought them in at the beginning. Now, we did have Senator Harkin and Congressman Engel to help kind of push those guys into the room to talk about it at first, but it means that things are happening in West Africa that never would have happened otherwise.

Kevin Bales, founder of Free the Slaves, the American sister organization of the UK’s Anti-Slavery International. He is co-author of the book The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today.

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