Slavery on our doorstep

January 19, 2001

Kevin Bales has uncovered a trade in human misery ranging from domestic workers in London to child prostitutes in Bangkok. Anne Sebba reports.

Kevin Bales clearly remembers his first encounter with injustice. Aged four, he was standing in line in a cafeteria in his hometown in Oklahoma. Certain that the African-American family waiting behind the barrier had arrived before him, he urged them to move on ahead.

Bales, now 48, a professor of sociology at the University of Surrey, in Roehampton, instinctively understood inequality but not segregation. He has been involved in a variety of human rights causes since adolescence, and his book, Disposable People: The New Slavery in the Global Economy , was recently turned into a successful television documentary that generated international debate. He has just published a reference textbook on modern slavery aimed at students, while a volume on slavery and rehabilitation is due for publication later this year.

Although slavery is illegal in every country in the world, Bales has spent the past decade documenting how an estimated million people - more than twice the total number of people taken from Africa during the 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade - still live in bondage. He has probably done more than any other individual to reveal how, where and why modern-day slavery operates and to offer suggestions about what ordinary people can do to help stop it.

"Until ten years ago I had a notion that, although there might be occasional situations when someone temporarily enslaved someone else, slavery couldn't possibly exist on a large scale because, surely, anyone who tried it would be arrested immediately. Like everyone else in the developed world I thought, 'We've solved that one, it's history and we're sort of proud of it'."

He began to think differently after reading disturbing leaflets distributed by Anti-Slavery International. "I realised that the occasional journalistic articles I had read on the subject suffered from an inability to describe what was being seen as slavery. So unbelievable was the scenario that the writers used terms such as 'virtual slaves' and 'slave-like'. They might say 'look what we've discovered and it's shocking', but these were isolated exposures of appalling exploitation with little analysis. This was a research problem. I decided that, as a social researcher, it was something to which I should apply proper methods and tools and write not with outrage but with clarity, analysis and evidence.

"Metaphorically speaking," Bales explains, "it's as if we've been flying in a plane on a very cloudy day and, looking down, you see very little. But a few peaks stand out, for example, the temple girls of West Africa or the domestic slaves of Paris. In the past, we haven't been able to see through the clouds to pull all these episodes together and form a geography of slavery."

As Bales points out, slavery is an ancient social institution practised for the past 5,000 years, so perhaps one should not be surprised at its persistence. "But today it is a booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. The global economy has aggravated the situation by improving the status of some and making others, who once lived in a kind of stable poverty, much worse. One factor is that the end of the cold war integrated a lot more people into the global economy as the trafficking of people across borders became easier and the market for these people increased. Globalisation has created very large numbers of vulnerable people in the developing world who are no longer linked into any kind of support structure that was once provided by village, family or tribal relationships."

Bales has evolved a strict definition of a slave as someone who is held under threat of harm or by actual violence, is paid nothing and is economically exploited. One of the reasons why the new slavery, which focuses on big profits and cheap lives, is so shocking is that it is not so much about owning people in the traditional sense.

"When people buy slaves today they don't ask for a receipt or ownership papers, but they do gain control and they use violence to maintain this control. Slaveholders have all the benefits of ownership without the legalities. Indeed for the slaveholders, not having legal ownership is an improvement because they get total control without any responsibility. For that reason I tend to use the term slaveholder instead of slaveowner."

Bales defines the three most common forms of slavery today as chattel slavery, where a person is captured, born or sold into slavery; debt bondage, where a person pledges him or herself against a loan but never reduces the debt; and contract slavery, where contracts are offered for employment but the worker is then enslaved.

In Disposable People , translated into five languages and winner of the prestigious Viareggio Prize for services to humanity, Bales examined slavery in five countries: child sex slaves in Thailand, Christian brick makers in Pakistan, the black African slaves of Mauritania, charcoal workers of Brazil, so crucial to the country's steel industry, and bonded labourers in India. But he is at pains to point out that modern slavery exists not only in developing countries but also in the West. A recent investigation in Britain found young girls being held as prostitutes in Birmingham and Manchester. Enslaved domestic workers have been found in London and Paris while, in the United States, textile workers were found locked into a factory and working under armed guard.

To conduct the research for his book, Bales frequently posed as an economist searching for bland facts and figures, hoping the truth about the economics of slave labour would spill out. He sometimes found himself in situations of extreme danger. "I've had a few nervous moments," he says with understatement, "like when I was at a checkpoint in Mauritania and loaded rifles were pointed right at me as I was asked what I was doing there."

The place Bales visited first to gather data and the one that still today appals him the most was Thailand, where thousands of children are sold by their parents into a "living hell" of prostitution. If the girls try to run away they are beaten, brutally raped or worse. Bales was shown the brothels by a local HIV/Aids health worker. "If the pimp had understood who I really was, it would have been devastatingly dangerous for the health worker," he says.

Bales grew up in the US, one of four children whose parents both worked for the FBI. As a teenager, he was involved in community service work on behalf of Native Americans, was active in the anti-Vietnam war movement and then got a job working on death penalty and prison reform. Emotionally exhausted, he came to England to study data collected by the Victorian social reformer Charles Booth. Now married to an Englishwoman and father of a young son, he seems settled here.

But he has not found it easy to fund his work. Most research foundations said they had not allocated money to his area before. "One US foundation was keen but eventually turned me down because I did not already have fieldwork experience. Well, of course I didn't, this was a catch-22 situation. In the end I had to take a commercial research contract and the university agreed I could use profits from this to pay for my research into slavery."

Nonetheless, a few months ago Bales was invited to testify before the US Senate foreign relations committee on a bill pending on contemporary slavery and trafficking.

Bales believes that the television documentary - which, although based on his research, revealed new areas of slavery - has helped him by increasing worldwide awareness of the problem. One country where he thinks his research has had some impact is Brazil, where the government has admitted that the existence of charcoal slaves is unacceptable.

Disposable People is published by University of California Press, £9.50. Anti-Slavery International is at


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