For most people, the word slavery conjures up images of black slaves on cotton plantations and has no connection to the modern world, while in fact there are still an estimated 46 million slaves in the world today.
Professor Kevin Bales, who was invited by Kateřina Uhlířová to give a talk at the PhD School of Antislavery and Trafficking organized at the MU Faculty of Law this past November, has been collecting data on modern forms of slavery for several years. As he says, he came upon the topic of his research by accident and through a combination of overconfidence and curiosity.
“It happened some time in 1992, just as I started working as a university lecturer in human rights. I lived in London back then and one night at some event I came across a handful of flyers lying on a table. One of them said that there were still millions of slaves in the world. I thought, ‘This can’t be right – I’ve been in human rights for some time now, so I would certainly know something about that.’”
The flyer described three stories of people from three different countries and Bales wanted to confirm that these were in fact isolated cases. This was the first impulse that sparked his interest. “I found no information on modern forms of slavery in our library, so I checked the official UN documents, which didn’t say much about the subject, either. However, they put me on the track to other sources of information, I started talking to NGOs and suddenly I heard a whole lot of similar stories and I had to admit that slavery was real.”
Undercover among slavers
After several years, Bales decided to write a book and investigate slavery from up close. He spent more than seven years travelling and saw most of the world including Uganda, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Haiti.
“Working undercover, I was able to get to places where people are held for slave labour. I thought I was resilient and ready for anything, because I used to work in prisons in the United States, including with people who were on death row. But I was really shaken by the violence and atrocities committed against people held in slavery.”
One of the examples Bales described was his first trip to Thailand, where he investigated local brothels. “These places were not part of the sex tourism business. We tried to get to brothels in the rural areas, whose the customers were mostly construction workers and farmers, and who enslaved women for prostitution. Pretending to be a couple of European tourists interested in the local women, we managed to get inside through a local contact who went to these brothels to distribute condoms and carry out HIV/AIDS tests.”
Together with his colleague, they were finally allowed to take one of the women outside the brothel and convince her to tell them about life in that place, which included torture and murders.
“My colleague spoke fluent Thai, but she did not show that while we were in the brothel. These places are run by criminal gangs. When we were taking the women away, the local pimp told us that if she didn’t return, he would kill the man who provided the HIV tests.” The research became the basis for Bales’ book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. A film based on the book won a Peabody Award and two Emmys.
Bales tries to depict not only the stories of the enslaved people, but also the larger context of slavery, which is essentially a highly profitable criminal activity: “I tried to look around in those Thai brothels and quickly find and take pictures of their account books.” Bales stresses that any situation when one person is in complete control of another and uses violence to make the other person do what they want amounts to slavery.
The threat of slavery is greatest in war zones. “The best prevention of slavery is a functioning legal system able to enforce its laws,” says Bales. “However, the rule of law is the first thing that is lost in a civil war. In the chaos that ensues, there is nowhere people can turn for help.” He also adds that refugees are the most vulnerable group of people. Other causes of slavery include extreme poverty and all forms of discrimination.
The fact that slavery is still around in the 21st century is hard to stomach for many. Even though slavery never actually went away, it became illegal and therefore less visible to the public. Moreover, it was a taboo during the Cold War era, according to Bales. When the UN tried to open a debate on this subject, one of the member countries always blocked the attempt.
“When the Cold War ended, evidence of this practice began to come up,” Bales says. “The typical stories included Eastern European women forced into prostitution. As such news became public, they didn’t discuss slavery but rather coined a new term – human trafficking.” He adds that there is no country where slavery does not occur at all, although it is usually not a mass phenomenon.
Slaves are cheaper than ever before
The most striking difference between modern slavery and slavery in the past is the price – or rather the collapse in prices. “It use to be very costly to own a slave, but the current costs of slave-owning are the lowest in recorded history. If you know the right people, you can buy a slave in Western Europe – which is the most expensive place to do so – for about three to five thousand euro.”
Bales says that after all that he has seen, he could not just go back to university and teaching. He continues his fight against slavery and besides mapping it, he is also trying to find ways to stop it. “We know how to do it and we know how much it would cost. To free the current population of 46 million slaves around the world, we would need about 25 billion dollars and twenty years.”
The most important thing is to get rescued slaves as far as possible from the war zone and support them for a certain period of time, until they rebuilt their lives and learn to understand their rights, and seek help in the right places.
What makes the fight against slave labour difficult is not only a lack of funding, but also the fact that it is mostly driven by NGOs rather than by the local governments or police. Another problem is that those responsible for enslaving others often walk away scot-free.