Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery Activist Kevin Bales is continuing his long fight against human trafficking and contemporary slavery. Bales talks about his new book, Ending Slavery, which presents a plan to rid the world of human bondage.
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Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery

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Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery

Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery

Eradicating Modern-Day Slavery

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Activist Kevin Bales is continuing his long fight against human trafficking and contemporary slavery. Bales talks about his new book, Ending Slavery, which presents a plan to rid the world of human bondage.


I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's an industry that's thriving across the globe, including right here in the United States. I'm talking about slavery. Activists Kevin Bales has spent years spreading the word about modern day bondage. When I spoke with Kevin, he talked about solutions and explained what it means to be a modern day slave.

Dr. KEVIN BALES (Activist and Author, "Ending Slavery"): You know, what's interesting about slavery is that it hasn't really changed in 5,000 years. A slave is somebody who is under the complete control of another person. They use violence to maintain that control. They exploit them economically, and they pay them nothing. And if you strip away all the different kinds of packaging that's occurred on slavery throughout history, you'd come to those same key attributes. And today, slaves are in exactly that situation.

CHIDEYA: Are there different types of slaves? And what I mean by that is a lot of people talk now about sexual trafficking or sexual slavery. What kinds of work are the people who are enslaved across the world doing in terms of some of the most common types of work?

Dr. BALES: Well, dirty, dangerous, demeaning work is the key there. It can be agriculture construction. It can be making simple products. You can be enslaved into sexual exploitation or prostitution for sex, that sort of thing. You can be put in anything that a criminal can think up and exploit you at. You can be enslaved to do that.

CHIDEYA: Now, you've written two other books on this subject, "Disposable People," and, "Understanding Global Slavery." They have put a lot of people into contact with the very idea that there still are slaves. But do you think that most people in the West have any idea of the magnitude of the problem?

Dr. BALES: You know, I don't think most people have an idea of the size, the fact that there's 27 million people in the world in slavery. But I'm very happy to think and notice that, over the last two or three years, that a lot of people seem to have now an inkling of the problem. So four or five years ago, if you talked about modern slavery, people said, you're lying. It doesn't exist. Today, if you mention a word like human trafficking or you're talking about modern slavery, they say, oh, yeah. There was something on NPR, and it's a bit vague in their minds. But at least there's an awareness growing.

CHIDEYA: I met a slave once or a man who had been enslaved who told me that his parents sold him off when he was a child - presumably so they could survive or pay off debts. How often is that narrative something that happens to people who are enslaved? Where do they come from in terms of just being born into slavery, being sold, being captured?

Dr. BALES: Well, I have to say, it's all of the above. What you describe is not uncommon. It's usually a little more complex than selling a child. It's usually a kind of devil's choice that you're confronted with as a parent. So you're actually thinking I get - my son or my daughter are - they're starving. They're ill, I can't afford medicine. This person is offering me a chance for them to have an education and perhaps a job. Do I take it and trust that person, or do I keep them here in a situation where they'll probably be damaged? So it's not so much like selling as it is facing a choice that no parent should ever have to face.

At the same time, there are millions of people in the world in hereditary slavery, particularly hereditary debt bondage slavery in India, Pakistan and Nepal, who - I've met families in their third and fourth generations of slavery. And for them, slavery is not just an event. It's, you know, it's a complete universe of - and it's a complete life for them. They have very little understanding of life outside of slavery.

CHIDEYA: Tell us more about this idea of debt bondage that transcends the bonds of time.

Dr. BALES: Well, it's a kind of debt bondage slavery that's called collateral debt bondage. And it's not like the loans that you or I might take out to buy a house or a car. It works this way: If I'm desperate for some money because I need to buy medicine for my child who's sick and I - but I'm very, very, very poor. And I go to a local moneylender or landowner and I say, well, I need this money to buy this medicine. And they say, well, you know, do you have any collateral? The answer is, no, I'm dirt poor. So they say, well, I could loan you this money, but you and your family, and all the work that you can do will be the collateral against - that I will hold against this loan until you repay it.

Now, I appreciate for Americas that you actually have to kind of stretch your mind to get around that idea that you and your own work become collateral against a loan. But because everything you do and all your work becomes collateral that the moneylender or the slaveholder now owns forever, it means that you would never have an opportunity to repay that debt because everything you produce goes to that person as collateral. And for that reason, the debt then passes down through the generations and is inherited, and the slaveholder simply owns those families as long as they keep them alive.

CHIDEYA: So what next? You're looking at a 25-year plan to end global slavery. What exactly is in that plan?

Dr. BALES: Well, my new book basically sets out things that we have learned from getting people out of slavery around the world. And, basically, there's no single, silver bullet for ending slavery. But there are, in a sense, a whole box of bullets that apply to governments and box of bullets that applied to communities and to NGOs and to the World Bank and to the United Nations.

And that book basically looks to places for the lessons that we know have worked, where people have literally come to - out of slavery, into freedom, into new lives, and then says, if businesses has done this and it's worked, let's see about scaling it up.

In many ways, it's very exciting because, unlike the past, we don't have some of the terrible problems in - as a challenge in the movement in slavery. There's a law against slavery in every single country.

And the actual amount of monetary value of slavery in the global economy is minute. It comes to about $30 billion a year, which is - it sounds like a lot to you or me, but it's nothing in the global economy. So there's no big vested interest, and no economy, no industry would collapse if we ended slavery tomorrow. So it's all about scaling up the things that we already know how to do, and those 27 million people can come out of slavery.

CHIDEYA: When you speak to African-Americans, and we have, often, a very emotional as well as intellectual reaction to discussions of slavery, is there any difference for you speaking to a black American audience about slavery versus a white American or people from other nations? Is there something that resonates in a particular way? And if so, how do you use that in how you speak to people?

Dr. BALES: Well, indeed, there is. You're absolutely right. And I love to be able to talk to African-American audiences because they have such a great resonance with the issue of slavery. But there's always that first moment when I stand up and say, I'm going to talk about slavery, and all of those eyes look back at me and say, this white man is going to talk to us about slavery? This is our issue. And what does he know about slavery? He's not in history, he's today.

But what I discover is that if I'm given a chance to go to the second paragraph and have a chance to show film clips, for example, of those young men in West Africa who are enslaved in coco production or other types of slavery around the world. And I explain the exact similarities between those hereditary slaves in Mauritania or India with those of Alabama or Mississippi before the Civil War. African-Americans say, you're right, this is slavery too. And in many ways, we feel this all the more strongly because we have that in our family histories. And we know that if it was bad for our family, it's bad for any family.

CHIDEYA: Kevin, thanks so much.

Mr. BALES: It's been great.

CHIDEYA: Kevin Bales is an author and a human rights activist. His book is called, "Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves?" And he joined us from our Washington headquarters.

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