slavery: a 21st century evil
Slavery: A 21st Century Evil

Slavery: Standing on the edge of extinction?

For the cost of a bridge or a light-railway system, 27 million people could be taken out of slavery once and for all.

Outside Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, India is a centre where child slaves are brought after they have been freed.

Here I met Raj. Kidnapped at the age of six, he was enslaved to make carpets that are sold in the US and Europe.

Locked in a hut with a carpet loom, he was fed little, beaten often and paid nothing. The man who ran the looms exercised total violent control over the children he had enslaved. Raj’s slavery lasted for five years.

Bending over the loom, his spine curved. Breathing fine wool dust, his lungs clogged. In the dark shed, his eyes failed. The rescue workers freed a stunted, sick, confused and frightened little boy. Every part of Raj – his body, mind and spirit – needed immediate help.

He is not unique, he is one of thousands of children in the same situation. Raj is just one of the lucky few who are rescued.

An old industry in new forms

Slavery has been with us for thousands of years. It has been present in most cultures at one time or another, taking slightly different forms. Like other types of crime it has changed over the centuries, but for many people slavery means what happened in the 19th century. The public often believes slavery ended with the campaigns that brought an end to legal slavery. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Slavery means controlling someone completely using violence, paying them nothing and exploiting them economically. By this measure there are 27 million slaves in the world. Many are kept in a new form of slavery that has emerged since 1945. This slavery is different in one crucial way: Slaves are cheaper today than at any time in human history. Slaves were major capital purchases in the 19th century, today they are so cheap they are disposable. How has this come about?

Three things have pushed slavery through this rapid change. Firstly, the world’s population has tripled since 1945, with the bulk of this growth being in the developing world. Secondly, the economic changes of globalisation, combined with war or environmental destruction, have driven people in the developing world both into cities and into desperation.

These impoverished and vulnerable people are a bumper crop of potential slaves. But to turn the vulnerable into slaves you need government corruption. When a bribe can make police turn a blind eye, those with the means of violence (sometimes the police themselves) can harvest slaves.Once harvested, these slaves are different in some ways from those of the past.

Consider slavery in the American South in 1850. At that time, an average slave cost about $1,000; that is about $40,000 today. For that price, clear ownership was expected, and care was taken to protect the investment. The profits to be made were relatively low, but a slave’s value meant slaves and masters were bound in long-term, often life-long, relationships.

Compare that to a 14-year-old girl sold into a working class brothel in Thailand today. Her initial purchase price might be less than $1,000. In the brothel, she will be told she must re-pay eight times her purchase price to gain her freedom, as well as rent, food and medicine costs. This is one form of debt bondage slavery.

Despite having sex with 10 to 15 men a night (the normal rate), her debt will keep expanding through false accounting.The profit that her ‘owners’ make from her can be as high as 800 per cent. Her annual turnover, the amount men pay for her, is around $75,000, though she will not see a penny of that. Her owners will be lucky to get three or four years of use from her since HIV is common in the brothels. But because she was so cheap to begin with, she is easily replaced. If she is ill or injured or just troublesome, she is disposable.

Investing in slavery

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The brothels of Thailand are just one place we find contemporary slavery. Slaves tend to be used in simple, non-technological and traditional work. Most work in agriculture. But slaves are also found in: brickmaking, mining and quarrying, textiles, leather working, prostitution, gem working and jewellery making, cloth and carpet making, working as domestic servants, clearing forests, making charcoal, and working in shops. Most of this work is aimed at local sale and consumption, but slave-made goods filter throughout the global economy and into our homes.

Studies have documented the slave origins of several international products, such as carpets, cotton, shrimp and fish, sugar, tantalum (a mineral used in mobile phones) and jewellery. We may be using slave-made goods or investing in slavery without knowing it. Slave-produced cocoa, for example, goes into the chocolate we buy. Rugs made by slave children in India, Pakistan and Nepal are mainly exported to Europe and the US.

Business has also been pressed to deal with recent revelations about slavery among their suppliers. Filming of slaves on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast led to calls for a boycott of chocolate. The Ivory Coast produces about half of the world’s cocoa.

In a unique response, the chocolate industry reached an agreement with anti-slavery and anti-child labour groups to bankroll work to remove slavery from their supply chain. The resulting international cocoa initiative is a true public-private partnership that has moved millions of dollars into preventing child labour and slave labour in West Africa.

The good news …

If there is good news about modern slavery, it is the strange paradox of its existence today and the unique historical moment in which we live. The 27 million slaves are, in fact, the smallest fraction of the world population to ever live in slavery. The $40 billion they generate as profits for slaveholders is tiny compared to other industries, and is the smallest proportion of the global economy ever represented by slavery. It is so small that no national economy, no industry, would fail if slavery were suddenly ended; only the criminals that control slaves would suffer.

Slavery has been pushed to the dark edges of our global society, it stands on the edge of its own extinction; never has there been a better time to end it once and for all. With slavery illegal in every country and universal agreement on the human right of freedom, the stage is set for complete eradication. This is a special moment in history. Over the past 10 years slavery has come to an end for thousands of people. In different places, different kinds of slavery have been attacked and wiped out.

To fight slavery the growing anti-slavery movement has tried many things, some have failed and some have succeeded, but every attempt taught important lessons. In fact, when it comes to testing the methods of liberation, proof of concept is now complete. Today we know how to get people out of slavery. The question is no longer: Can we get people out of slavery? The question is: How many can be freed and how quickly? And the answer to that question is all about the resources that can be devoted to freeing slaves. 

By any measure the cost of liberating and helping freed slaves to rebuild their lives, is a real bargain. It is so remarkably low because most slaves live in countries, like India, where incomes and costs are low. If you calculate the cost of liberation for all 27 million slaves in the world it totals just under $11bn that will need to be spent over a period of 25 to 30 years. That is a lot of money, but in global terms it is small change. It is the cost of the bridge Hong Kong is building across the Pearl River, or what the city of Seattle will spend on its light-rail and monorail system.

Sadly, the sums actually spent on ending slavery, on enforcing their own laws, by all governments range from pathetic to insulting, and are nowhere near what is spent on other serious crimes. Which is all the more frustrating because ending slavery saves money. Careful research on freed communities show a rapid increase in the local economy and a decline in costly environmental destruction and political corruption. There is a clear freedom dividend when slavery ends, liberation soon pays for itself.

We stand at a moment in human history when our economies, governments, understanding, moral beliefs and our hearts are aligned in a constellation that can bring slavery to an end. Our work is limited only by our imaginations, and guided by our common dream, we will achieve a world without slavery.

Kevin Bales is the president of Free the Slaves, the US sister organisation of Anti-Slavery International, and a professor of sociology at Roehampton University in London. His book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, published in 1999, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Slavery: A 21st Century Evil can be seen from Monday, October 10, at the following times GMT: Monday: 2230; Tuesday: 0930; Wednesday: 0330; Thursday: 1630.

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