Kevin Bales


American-born English-based Anti-Slavery Activist, Co-Founder and President of Free the Slaves, Author, Professor of Sociology and Consultant to the United Nations Global Program on Human Trafficking

Author Quotes

What country has been sanctioned by the UN for slavery? Where are the UN inspection teams charged with searching out slave labor? Where are the penalties from the WTO for exporting slave-made goods? Who speaks for slaves in the International Court of Justice?

What?s it like being an Indian farm laborer in debt bondage? You can get a sense of their daily life by trying the following experiment at home. In the kitchen find a bag of rice, or even better some plain, unground wheat. Fill up a coffee mug four times with the rice or wheat. Now feed a family of five for one day with the grain you have measured out. For every meal you?ll need to give each person only one-third of a coffee mug of grain so that it will last all day. If you are having wheat, you?ll need to grind it into flour and mix it with water to make soft unleavened bread. If it?s rice you can just boil it as usually. Repeat this recipe every day for the rest of your life.

When old-style slavery is still practiced, bondage lasts forever. A Mauritanian woman born into slavery has a good chance of remaining so for the rest of her life. Her children, if she has any, will also be slaves, and so on down the generations. But today most slaves are temporary; some are enslaved for only a few months. It is simply not profitable to keep them when they are not immediately useful. Under these circumstances, there is no reason to invest heavily in their upkeep and indeed little reason to ensure that they survive their enslavement.

This form of contract debt bondage is extremely profitable. A girl between twelve and fifteen years old can be purchased for $800 to $2,000, and the costs of running a brothel and feeding the girls are relatively low. The profit is often as high as 800 percent a year. This kind of return can be made on a girl for five to ten years. After that, especially if she becomes ill or HIV-positive, the girl is dumped.

When Siri wakes it is about noon. In the instant of waking she knows exactly who and what she has become. As she explained to me, the soreness in her genitals reminds her of the fifteen men she had sex with the night before. Siri is fifteen years old. Sold by her parents a year ago, her resistance and her desire to escape the brothel are breaking down and acceptance and resignation are taking their place.

This historical point is important to help us understand the context of debt bondage: in Pakistan feudalism is alive and well.

Whenever abolition has been discussed the reaction has been immediate: masters step up their brutality, ship their slaves into the isolated countryside, and separate children from parents to serve as hostages. If the government were to pass and enforce laws to bring slavery to an end, chances are good that it would be the government, not slavery, that failed to survive. Second, even the successful abolition of slavery could be sowing the seeds of the government?s destruction. Slaves are effectively non-citizens, systematically denied all political rights. If slaves become functioning members of society, White Moor control of the country would be under threat.

Though they are infrequently sold [in Mauritania], a young male slave might go for $500 to $700, a mature female for $700 to $1,000, and a young and healthy female for even more.

While the developed world bemoans the destruction of the rain forests, few people realize that slave labor is used to destroy them. Men are lured to the region by promises of riches in gold dust, and girls as young as eleven are offered jobs in the offices and restaurants that serve the mines. When they arrive in the remote mining areas, the men are locked up and forced to work in the mines; the girls are beaten, raped, and put to work as prostitutes. Their ?recruitment agents? are paid a small amount for each body, perhaps $150. The ?recruits? have become slaves ? not through legal ownership, but through the final authority of violence. The local police act as enforcers to control the slaves.

Three key factors helped create the new slavery and change the old slavery. The first is the population explosion that flooded the world?s labor markets with millions of poor and vulnerable people. The second is the revolution of economic globalization and modernized agriculture, which has dispossessed poor farmers and made them vulnerable to enslavement?The third factor is the chaos of greed, violence, and corruption created by this economic change in many developing countries, change that is destroying the social rules and traditional bonds of responsibility that might have protected potential slaves.

Who are these modern slaveholders? The answer is anyone and everyone: anyone, that is, with a little capital to invest. The people that appear to own the enslaved prostitutes ? the pimps, madams, and brothel keepers ? are in fact usually just employees. As hired muscle, pimps and their helpers provide the brutality that controls women and makes possible their commercial exploitation.

To deflower a virgin these men pay between 5,000 and 50,000 baht ($200 to $2,000). Deflowering often takes place away from the brothel in a hotel room rented for the occasion. The pimp or his assistant will often attend as well, since it is usually necessary to beat the girl into submission.

Whole families in the eastern cities teeter on the edge of starvation: some live in the public rubbish dumps gleaning scraps of metal to sell, others beg, and some turn to selling drugs. These families are trapped and are willing to do anything to bring in food for their children. When recruiters arrive in the cities of Minas Gerais promising good work at good pay, they leap at the chance.

To solve the puzzle of how slavery is linked to our lives, we need to draw on good researchers, good economists, and good businesspeople: researchers to follow the flow of raw materials and products from the hands of slaves to their ultimate consumer, economists to explore the nature of slave-based businesses and work out viable alternatives, and experienced businesspeople, to help the businesses all along the product chain find the best way to end their participation in slavery.

To understand this slavery that is not slavery, we must remember the Mauritanian context.

Today we think of the slavery of the nineteenth century as exemplifying ?old? slavery. But to understand Mauritanian slavery we must go back even further, to the slavery of Old Testament times. It both treats the slaves more humanely and leaves them more helpless, a slavery that is less a political reality than a permanent part of the culture. It places a greater value on the bodies and lives of slaves, especially female slaves, than do other forms of slavery. It is so deeply ingrained in the minds of both slave and master that little violence is needed to keep it going. The lack of overt violence has also allowed many outside observers, like the French and American governments, to deny that this slavery even exists.83)

Unlike a century ago, no modern slaveholders delude themselves that they are somehow ?civilizing? their slaves, or lifting them toward religious salvation. In the lean, mean global economy slavery is stripped of its moral justifications: slaves equal profits.

Virtually no landlord has ever been prosecuted for abusing bonded laborers. The law allows masters to be charged and punished, but it simply doesn?t happen. The reformers had assumed that it was not necessary to fine every landlord who had bonded laborers so long as there was no interference with rehabilitation, but the almost total lack of judicial backup has meant that some landlords feel free to threaten and coerce laborers back into bondage.

We are back to the terms of the abolition campaigns of the nineteenth century: if we are going to stop slavery we must convince the world that human rights need even more protection than property rights.

We have to remember that violence is the tool, not the aim, of slavery. Slaveholders will violently defend their lucrative businesses, but they will walk away from the slaves and the business if it stops making money. Putting the pressure on its profits is a key strategy for ending slavery.

We tend to picture environmental destruction as huge bulldozers gouging their way through pristine forests, crushing life under their steel tracks, scraping away nature in order to cover the land with concrete. In fact the process is more insidious. In this case, the people who live in the forest and rely on it are usually the ones forced to destroy it. Tree by tree, the hands of slave wrench the life out of their own land and prepare it for a new kind of exploitation. The slavery of Brazil is a temporary slavery because environmental destruction is temporary: a forest can only be ruined once, and it doesn?t take that long.

Bringing down criminals by investigating their finances and enforcing economic sanctions has been shown to be effective, yet these techniques are rarely applied to the crime of slavery. The power of a great range of organizations ? the World Bank, national regulatory agencies, trade organizations, regional customs and excise units, individual companies, consumer groups ? could be harnessed to break the profits of slavers.

For some slaves, the first step out of bondage is to learn to see their lives with new eyes. Theirÿrealityÿis a social world where they have their place and some assurance of a subsistence diet. Born into slavery, they cannot easily redefine their lives outside the frame of enslavement.

In the nineteenth century the booming British cloth industry was forced to acknowledge that slave labor supplied most of its raw material ? cotton. Some British textile workers tried to resist working with slave cotton, yet many felt they had no choice but to work with whatever materials the boss provided. Other workers felt the whole question was none of their business. There was no moral leadership from the owners; they said they had to buy the cheapest cotton the market to compete. And the government of the time, while benefiting from the tax on the industry, followed a strict hands-off policy, arguing that ?the market? made the best decisions.

No paid workers, no matter how efficient, can compete economically with unpaid workers ? slaves. In the new slavery race means little. In the past, ethnic and racial differences were used to explain and excuse slavery?Today the morality of money overrides other concerns. Most slaveholders feel no need to explain or defend their chosen method of labor recruitment and management. Slavery is a very profitable business, and a good bottom line is justification enough.

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American-born English-based Anti-Slavery Activist, Co-Founder and President of Free the Slaves, Author, Professor of Sociology and Consultant to the United Nations Global Program on Human Trafficking