Modern Day Abolition: Acting on a Moral Imperative

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Authors: Becky Bavinger

Becky Bavinger is an abolitionist and the Country Director for The Emancipation Network India . She founded Students Stopping the Trafficking of People at Georgetown University. Here, Bavinger reviews Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves by Kevin Bales (University of California Press, 2007).

Full Article:

After hundreds of books, documentaries, sermons, and even university courses on modern slavery and human trafficking, people have begun asking, "What can I do to help?"

In his latest book, Kevin Bales responds to that demanding question. Ending Slavery surveys the history of various anti-slavery movements, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of their strategies, as well as their failures and successes. He makes clear suggestions for all the usual suspects - governments, law enforcement agencies, the United Nations and other international entities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), service providers, and businesses. But, to address the common reader, he explains the role of consumer demand and how the economics of slavery is really the driving factor that keeps people enslaved.

First, Bales is quick to point out that despite the daunting reality that an estimated 27 million people are enslaved today, this is a lower percentage of the world population enslaved (.4%) than at any other time throughout human history. Going back to the first documentation of human civilization, he provides evidence of slavery and how much more prevalent, and legal, it was in the past than it is today.

Bales is obviously frustrated, as most of us are, that slavery isn't on the public's radar screen. Ending slavery isn't even on the Millennium Development Goals list! This neglect happens despite the fact that trafficking and slavery are linked to drugs, weapons trafficking, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and may even fund terrorist organizations. Instead of creating new organizations and bureaucracies, something several other advocacy groups are calling for, Bales suggests training existing organizations in slavery identification and response.

For example, the new Director of the Ukrainian Peace Corps was formerly with the International Organization for Migration, and understands the issue of human trafficking in that region. He has stationed several volunteers with anti-trafficking organizations throughout the country. This step has proved useful both for foreign funders, who have a better source of communication, and the Ukrainian organizations, which get well qualified volunteers.

Corruption Drives Enslavement

Bales discusses the role of governmental and law enforcement corruption as one of the three factors fueling the slavery fire (population increases and extreme poverty being the other two). While there is a clear connection between government corruption and trafficking, I would add that corruption in the business and civil sectors of society are just as much to blame.

For example, hotel chains that knowingly allow their rooms to be rented out by pimps, or employ trafficking victims as servants, are just as guilty as the traffickers. Major clothing lines, such as Ann Taylor and Banana Republic (which bought slave-made clothing from Saipan after Congressperson Tom DeLay blocked legislation to reform Saipan's labor laws), are also creating that demand. As Bales points out, businesses can sign on to the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, a pledge to weed out slavery from their enterprises.

Later, Bales touches on the role of the third sector - NGOs and communities, but he doesn't discuss the role of corruption in civil society. Anyone working with NGOs has been exposed to some degree of corruption. Perhaps there are certain trade-offs these agencies are willing to make in order to ensure funding, but corruption within anti-slavery organizations is dragging down the movement.

For individual or agency donors, it would be neglectful and naïve to assume NGOs with good mission statements and nice websites are to be trusted. Bales suggests that the reader make a steady donation each month to an anti-slavery organization. But I would add, do research on various organizations, and check their financial histories (using Guidestar, for example).

Despite his international recognition as a "slavery expert," Bales admits to his own shortcomings in a humble recollection of Nepal's debt-bondage abolition law of 2000. He pushed for this change, but the law passed abruptly, without the proper infrastructure in place. Slave masters, facing fines and penalties for having slaves on their property, evicted their slaves without any warning. This left thousands of people penniless and jobless, and many died shortly thereafter from hunger and disease.

Abolition Alone Isn't Enough

The story provides an important lesson for everyone involved in the anti-slavery movement: abolition alone is not sufficient. Anyone who has seen young girls lined up against dingy sex shacks can attest to the urgent need for a rescue operation. But it is equally necessary to build proper infrastructure for the ongoing care of such girls. Otherwise, they may be restored to their communities, only to be re-trafficked to other brothels.

Bales' promotes the International Cocoa Initiative, which works to get child and slave labor out of cocoa production. Although the staff of ICI is under pressure from companies and customers to change things now, they understand that community change is necessary for any sustainable outcome. Even if they demand child-free plantations, unless the community decides to change, pressure will have little impact.

While we want to be assured our chocolate is slave-free, Bales explains that boycotting and demanding immediate change actually hurts those cocoa farmers who aren't enslaving anyone, and doesn't effectively end slave labor.

In fact, it often has a worse effect, driving it underground so that it's harder to detect and report. There are several Fair Trade options and the ICI is working with major companies like Hershey's to improve the situation in cocoa producing communities.

Another example is the need to change red light and brothel communities, where trafficking and forced prostitution flourish. After seeing the work of several rescue agencies, and to their credit they are doing amazing work, one of my personal heroes is a group called Freeset. They work in a large red light district in Calcutta, India, but instead of rescuing the women from the sex trade they employ them to make jute logo bags. As the founder, Kerry Hilton explains, "Slavery is a business, a profitable one, and like any other business competitor, we are trying to drive out the business of slavery with the business of freedom." To Freeset, simply rescuing women from the area doesn't solve anything long-term because it frees up a bed, allowing more children to be trafficked and forced into the same hell. They would rather get the entire community to change from within, and even offer employment to some of the men who may have been or may become pimps. By offering decent jobs at good wages, their company employs nearly 150 women and men from the community. Employees encourage other women from the community to leave the brothel and work at Freeset.

Do the Impossible

As Bales describes several factors that allow slavery to exist and flourish, he suggests concrete actions that can and should be implemented immediately. Perhaps the most provocative of these proposals is Bales' response to people's demands on their governments and international agencies. "Why isn't the government doing something about this? What about the UN?"

He does give suggestions to those bodies, but turns the question back at the reader, "Why are you, as a customer, purchasing slave-made goods?" It is our responsibility to educate ourselves about the commodities we buy and what steps we can take to ensure they are slavery-free. Bales points to the 13th Amendment, Article XX of the GATT Treaty, and the Slave Trade Cases of 1864 as legal prohibitions of slavery-produced goods from even entering the US.

These laws need to be updated. But if we, the consumers, demand that companies adhere to no-slavery standards, and show them we mean it with our purchases, things will start to change. It can be daunting, since "a little bit of slavery is in a lot of commodities" including cocoa, steel, clothing, carpets, sugar, firecrackers, and jewelry.

But who really wants to wear a shirt made by slaves, or kick a soccer ball stitched by abused children in Pakistan? I certainly don't, and last year gave away all my clothes that I didn't know were made in fair labor conditions. While my family and friends thought this was extreme , why is it extreme to refuse to tolerate slavery? While Bales encourages the reader not to be overwhelmed, to do what is reasonably possible, I would encourage you to get overwhelmed and do the impossible. We can no longer claim ignorance.

The people who I feel are making the most difference are those who've literally committed their lives to ending slavery. Freeset's founder, for example, unknowingly moved his entire family into Calcutta's red light district and, after discovering the situation, dedicated his life to changing the community. The Emancipation Network's founder, Sarah Symons, has given every penny, even her house, to provide economic opportunities to survivors of slavery.

Triveni Acharya, Director of the Rescue Foundation, literally sleeps in the same shelter as the girls she's rescued from Mumbai's brothels. Silvio and Rose Silva, a Brazilian couple, moved to Nepal to raise survivors and street children in their home - which now has over 120 beautiful children! And to his great credit, Kevin Bales is also one of these non-stop heroes, who answers my emails within an hour even when he's supposed to be on vacation with his family.

I get emails from many people applauding the work we do, saying, "I wish I could come there and help." Stop wishing and find your own way to help. If coming to India doesn't appeal to you, find something that does and commit to it every day. The traffickers and profiteers are living and breathing slavery. So, if we aren't living and breathing freedom, how can we expect to change anything?