Bales Claims More Are Enslaved Today Than Ever
September 10, 2001
By Emily Drew '04
"Tell them, when they are eating chocolate, they are eating my flesh," said a 19-year-old enslaved cocoa worker on the screen. Kevin Bales used that short video as an introduction for his recent talk at Davidson on, "New Slavery in the Global Economy."
Sponsored by the Dean Rusk Program in International Studies, Bales' lecture introduced audience members to the widespread problem of industrial, agricultural, and sexual slavery, and showed how slavery is integrated into our globalized market and culture.
Bales, a professor of sociology at the University of Surrey Roehampton in London, England, has worked to bring slavery in the modern world to public attention. He is a trustee of the organization, "Anti-Slavery International," and is author of the 1999 book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. The book, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, outlines the extent of slavery in the modern world, and concludes that there may be about 25-million enslaved people today--more than at any previous time in history.
During his lecture, Bales said that the recent population explosion, the economic transformation to globalization, and the corruption and complicity of governments has led to this situation. As an example, Bales pointed to Mexico City, with its slum population of 10 million, as an area that is highly vulnerable to slavery because of poverty and lack of education. In many cases, people will agree to work a low-paying job, and later find out that they have given themselves over to slavery. Kidnapping, Bales said, is another common form of acquiring slaves.
"In the developed countries, we tend to be suffering from a misplaced historical illusion, thinking that slavery was done forever with the Emancipation Proclamation, and that was it, Amen," said Bales. "Slavery," he continued, "is a social institution rooted at the core of civilization." Some of the oldest written documents are, in fact, slave bills.
Unlike slavery in the past, however, today's slavery is not based on legal ownership or by division along ethnic and racial lines. The "new" slaves are drawn from the world's glut of poor, uneducated people, and the "new slavery" is not sensitive to race or ethnicity.
At an average of $90 per person, today's slaves cost much less than the $1,800 that was needed to buy a slave in the Old South. Modern slavery is also defined by the short-term relationship between owner and worker, and the very high profits that result by selling products in the West's markets.
Although obvious problems exist in developing nations, people are enslaved in the West, too. A recent CIA report determined that of the 50,000 people illegally trafficked into the U.S. each year, as many as three-fourths will be enslaved as household workers, prostitutes, or industrial workers.
Common products like chocolate and Brazilian rolled steel are usually produced by slave labor, too. Bales mentioned that US steel labor unions have supported tariffs to end cheap imports on Brazilian steel, and that US chocolate companies have always supported an end to slavery through investigation and fair wages.
Although slavery plays a large role in the global economy and is recognized by industry, Bales pointed out that slavery is usually not considered when governments are crafting international policy. He cited the World Trade Organization's intention to create improved environmental policy, while failing to consider social or human rights clauses.
At the end of his lecture, Bales asked the audience to consider what could be done to squelch slavery. "Build public awareness...get people thinking about the issue," he suggested. "What good is this richness, this global and political power, if we can't stop slavery? How can we even say that we're free?"
Born in the United States, Bales has lived in Britain for the past 18 years, and earned his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. He is currently on leave from the University of Surrey to establish a chapter of the organization in this country. His work earned him the year 2000's Premio Viareggio for services to humanity, and British television's Channel 4 recently broadcast a documentary film based on his work.
Bales is also a consultant to the United Nations Global Program on Trafficking of Human Beings, and has been invited to advise the U.S., British, Irish, Norwegian, and Nepali governments on the formulation of policy on slavery and human trafficking. He is currently completing another book, which evaluates governmental policies and programs that address slavery and trafficking. He is also promoting "Free the Slaves," an organization based in Washington, DC, that is dedicated to exposing human rights abuses. For more information, visit www.freetheslaves.net.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.