The New Slavery, and its Economics


In Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Kevin Bales uses economics to explain a human rights crisis faced by many of the countries that I will be traveling through this Fall.  Disposable People is powerfully informative (it inspired my friend to pursue a career in economics) so I thought I would pass along a few insights.

In 2005, I conducted peace and conflict resolution workshops in Cambodia, a nation known for trafficking women and girls into brothels and domestic servitude.  The focus of my work was on the genocide, but I quickly learned that sex trafficking and forced labor were inherently intertwined with the aftermath of this horrific era of violence.  Some of the individuals I spoke with found themselves tricked into slavery by a fraudulent contract, others were kidnapped, and still others were sold by their own families.  Regardless of how they wound up in those brothels, race did not appear to be the primary commonality.

It is but one story, but the 19-year-old daughter of an Anglo-American marine was traveling throughout Southeast Asia when she was captured and sold into slavery.  After several months of being imprisoned in a brothel, she escaped one day and ran to the police.  The officers promptly escorted her back to the brothel where she was used as an example to the other girls.  Another sex slave, a friend who had helped her escape, was forced to insert chili peppers up the girl’s anus.  Since the girl’s death, her father has traveled the world to educate people about the problem of modern day slavery.  Some argue that fighting this battle is more difficult now than ever before.  Bales is one of them.

In 1999, Bales’ conservative estimate was that there are 27 million slaves in the world, which is more than all of the people stolen from Africa in the time of the transatlantic slave trade.  He discusses three basic forms of slavery:

  1. Chattel slavery (the closest form to the old slavery in which a person is captured, born, or sold into permanent servitude and ownership is often asserted);
  2. Debt bondage (the most common type–15 to 20 million–in which people give themselves into slavery as security against a loan or when they inherit a debt from a relative); and
  3. Contract slavery (a contract is used to trick an individual into slavery and make the slavery look legitimate).

To overcome the challenges and implement effective solutions, we first of course first have to understand what keeps modern day slavery in business.  And to do so, we have to understand how the new slavery is different than the old slavery.  Bales offers some thought-provoking insight on how economics drives the slavery business:

  • The new slavery appropriates the economic value of individuals while keeping them under complete coercive control but without asserting ownership or accepting responsibility for their survival.  Legal ownership was asserted in the old slavery but is avoided in the new slavery.
  • Disposability: buying a slave is no longer a major investment.  In 1850, the cost of a field worker slave in the U.S. averaged  three to six times the yearly wage of an American worker.  Slaves were treated as sizable investments.  Today, in India for instance, the cost of a slave is the debt against which that slave is bonded, about $12 to $23.  And the bond is open-ended; the slave must work for the slaveholder until the slaveholder decides the debt is repaid (this may carry over into a second and third generation).
  • Short-term relationship.  It is cheaper to let slaves die from disease or injury than it is to treat them with medical attention.
  • New slavery is more profitable than the old slavery.  Example: agricultural bonded laborers in India generate not 5 percent, as did slaves in the American South, but over 50 percent profit per year for the slaveholder.
  • The common denominator of the new slavery is poverty, not color. Modernization and globalization have shattered the traditional family structures and small-scale subsistence farming that previously kept them afloat in times of crisis.

Slaves constitute a vast workforce that increasingly supports the global economy which we all depend upon.  The huge profitability of slavery also means that slaveholders can buy political power.  With the widening wealth gap, the extreme differential in power needed to enslave continues to grow throughout the world, says Bales, especially in countries whose governments choose to turn a blind eye.

What to do? We must consider the economic controls on the slave trade, and hit their pocket books.  A few options: First, we must be conscious consumers; know who made that shirt and that bar of chocolate you’re buying.  Second, we must dismantle slavery’s legal fictions (e.g. fraudulent labor contracts).  Third, there must be greater accountability for law enforcement.  The Thai government, for instance, is ambivalent about the commercial sex trade which feeds the incomes of many police officials who are hired to enforce fraudulent contracts or track down runaway slaves.  Lastly, like breaking the profits of drug barons, who are most often arrested not for distributing drugs but rather financial crimes (e.g. money laundering), international organizations (e.g. the World Bank) must also break the profits of slavers.  If we hit their pocketbooks hard enough (as was done to end apartheid in South Africa) to make governments, companies, and individuals change their ways, slavery will stop being so profitable.  “If slavery stops being profitable, there is little motivation to enslave,” writes Bales.

Let’s continue to educate one another and spread awareness.  Until we really know what makes slavery run, we have little chance of stopping it.

Learn more:

NewsOne, Contemporary Slavery: The Concealed Truth (Obama speech included)

Anti-Slavery International
Not For Sale Campaign
End Slavery Now
Slavery Footprint
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Artists United For Social Justice

About Dee Walker

I am an international attorney who believes in the power of story to inspire a better world. Join my 100 day journey around the globe!
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1 Response to The New Slavery, and its Economics

  1. thurland says:

    hi – we met at the albergue Delfin in Muxia, and I have been touring through your blog since then. An article I read today resonates with this particular post.

    Blessings on the remaining days of your trek.
    Blessings on your job interview.
    But mostly – magnified Blessings on whatever you do in the fight against this modern day atrocity.



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