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Why Modern-Day Slavery Is A Drag On The Economy And Environment

Oct 17, 2014

For most Americans, the word "slavery" conjures up images of the distant past - a land of cotton, plantations, and blue and grey coats. It seems like a relic from a different time and a different world, but in reality, more people are enslaved today than at any point in human history.

Author, activist, and Free the Slaves co-founder Kevin Bales has devoted his career to studying modern-day slavery. His most famous book, Disposable People, focuses on the recent collapse in the global price of slave labor.

“In 1850 you could by a nice house for $1,000. You could buy 300-400 acres of land for $1,000. It was the equivalent of a major purchase to buy a slave,” Bales says. “That's actually the truth across most of human history, and yet some time after the 1960s and 70s the price of human beings has collapsed and they stopped being capital purchase items like a tractor or a giant truck and became more like Styrofoam cups that you can buy very cheaply, use up and throw away.”

Bales blames this price collapse on political and economic change and the population explosion that occurred over the same period.

The economics of slavery is a major focus of Bales, and has led him to a finding that seems counter-intuitive at first: that slavery is actually bad for the businesses that utilize it.

“Slavery is like a drag on an economy,” Bales says. “Slaves consume virtually nothing and their production side is actually very low. Most slaves in the world operate in derivative, dirty, dangerous jobs that produce at a very low level. They're cost effective because they're free, but in terms of output, they're pathetic.”

He's seen that when slaves are freed and given enough money to start supporting themselves, the local economy drastically improves because more people are spending money. Everyone benefits, even those who have lost their free source of labor.

“Ironically, sometimes slave masters do better economically when they are stopped from being slave masters because they are often rich people who own the shops where freed slaves go to buy things,” Bales says. “They realize that they are doing better in retail than they did from slave labor."

The key to making that economic growth happen is supporting slaves once they are freed. This means a larger upfront investment for those attempting to emancipate people, but in Bales' opinion, it's an essential component.

“If you don't give people a chance, it doesn't have to be 40 acres and mule, if you don't give them some kind of a chance and some kind of a help, and some kind of therapy perhaps or education or even just a loan to get something started, they can easily fall back into a situation where it may not be slavery, but they are certainly going to be vulnerable to other kinds of exploitation,” Bales says.

An example of what happens when people are not provided with a base to work from is what Bales refers to as “the botched emancipation of 1865” that occurred in the United States.

“Most countries brought an end to legal slavery without having a civil war that killed 700,000 people,” Bales says. “And most countries did so without lifting two million people up out of slavery and then dumping them without access to credit, to meaningful political participation, to decent education, and then putting them within a context of discrimination and prejudice and violence.”

Bales' latest research is on modern slavery’s effect on the environment. He noticed over the years that the places where he found modern slavery were often places that had major environmental issue.

“The shocking calculation is that if slavery were a country, even though its only 30 million people, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States,” Bales says. “In other words, if we actually wanted to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to the point to stabilize climate change, one way to do that would be to enforce the laws against slavery.”

Bales insists that although the idea of ending slavery entirely can seem daunting, it is possible, maybe even probable.

“The truth of the matter is that 29 million people in the world in slavery is the smallest fraction of the global population to ever be in slavery. It's a minute fraction of the global population,” Bales says. “Most cultures have now rejected it on moral grounds as well as political grounds and while its complex and while its criminal, we're actually in a place where change can occur.”

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On the term “disposable people”

One of the things that I discovered when I was doing the research for that book was that the price of slaves had collapsed globally. If you looked across all of human history slaves had in fact been very expensive capital purchase items for economic processes. If you go back to the Deep South, before the civil war, the average price of an average slave, meaning a nineteen-year-old agricultural worker, was around a thousand to 1,200 in 1850s dollars. In 1850 you could by a nice house for a thousand dollars, you could buy three or four hundred acres of land for a thousand dollars, it was the equivalent of a major purchase to buy a slave. That's actually the truth across most of human history, and yet some time after the 1960's and 70's, something to do probably with both political change, economic change and the population explosion that occurred over the same period, the price of human beings has collapsed and they stopped being capital purchase items like a tractor or a giant truck and became more like Styrofoam cups that you can buy very cheaply, use up and throw away. They became disposable.

On the “botched” emancipation of 1865:

Most countries brought an end to legal slavery without having a civil war that killed 700,000 people and most countries did so without necessarily lifting, as we did in this country, 2 million people up out of slavery and then dumping them without access to credit, to meaningful political participation, without access to decent education and then putting them within a context of discrimination and prejudice and violence. We're still paying the price for the botched emancipation of 1865. If you don't give people a chance, it doesn't have to be 40 acres and mule, if you don't give them some kind of a chance and some kind of a help, and some kind of therapy perhaps or education or even just a loan to get something started, they can easily fall back into a situation where it may not be slavery, but they are certainly going to be vulnerable to other kinds of exploitation.

On why slavery is bad for business:

The situation fundamentally is that slavery is like a drag on an economy. You take whatever the portion of you population is in slavery and you remove them as economic agents from your economy. Slaves consume virtually nothing and their production side is actually very low. Most slaves in the world operate in derivative, dirty, dangerous jobs that produce at a very low level. They're cost effective because they're free, but in terms of output, they're pathetic

What we've been doing over a number of years is carrying out longitudinal research in areas like northern India where we trace villages where almost everyone in the village is in hereditary slavery and we survey very carefully their activities in slavery through the process of liberation and out the back end in freedom. We're about 7 years into watching that process occur, and everything points in the same direction. There's a very significant freedom dividend that when you bring people out of slavery in a community, particularly when that's a high portion of the population, the local economy begins to spiral up very quickly because people buy things and they also take their children out of the workplace immediately.

On the environmental impacts of modern slavery:

I began to notice that everywhere I studied slavery the environment was just a catastrophe. It was wrecked and I set out to measure how much environmental destruction is carried out by slave labor, when I spent about five years doing that all around the world, I realized that is was much more than anyone had ever guessed to the point particularly with things like deforestation, the shocking calculation is that if slavery were a country, even though its only 30 million people, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. In other words, if we actually wanted to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to the point to stabilize climate change, one way to do that would be to enforce the laws against slavery.

On why there is reason for optimism:

We should not feel despair and we should not feel overwhelmed. If we do we're actually looking to closely at the problem part of this and not at the opportunity. The truth of the matter is that 29 million people in the world in slavery is the smallest fraction of the global population to ever be in slavery. It's a minute fraction of the global population. Somewhere around 150 billion dollars a year that's the slave part of economic output in the global economy is the smallest fraction of the global economy ever represented by slave labor. We're actually living in a world where the eradication of slavery is possible, and I actually think its probable because its illegal in every country, most cultures have now rejected it on moral grounds as well as political grounds and while its complex and while its criminal, we're actually in a place where change can occur. 

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Kevin Bales, welcome to World Views

KEVIN BALES: Great to be here!

GRILLOT: And Kevin, welcome back to Oklahoma. This is your home, right? You're from Ponca City; you went to school here at the University of Oklahoma and graduated with a degree in Social Anthropology. You've been working over the past several years on the issue of human trafficking, modern day slavery. You wrote a very important book in 1999 called "Disposable People: The New Slavery in the Global Economy" can you tell us about that argument that you make about "disposable" people, this is not a kind term. What is it about these people that is disposable?

BALES: Well, it’s not a very kind term. The title of course was to shock people a little bit and to help them look into the book. One of the things that I discovered when I was doing the research for that book was that the price of slaves had collapsed globally. If you looked across all of human history slaves had in fact been very expensive capital purchase items for economic processes. If you go back to the Deep South, before the civil war, the average price of an average slave, meaning a nineteen-year-old agricultural worker, was around a thousand to 1,200 in 1850s dollars. In 1850 you could by a nice house for a thousand dollars, you could buy three or four hundred acres of land for a thousand dollars, it was the equivalent of a major purchase to buy a slave. That's actually the truth across most of human history, and yet some time after the 1960's and 70's, something to do probably with both political change, economic change and the population explosion that occurred over the same period, the price of human beings has collapsed and they stopped being capital purchase items like a tractor or a giant truck and became more like Styrofoam cups that you can buy very cheaply, use up and throw away. They became disposable.

GRILLOT: So what is it that has happened that has made people disposable? Obviously population has grown. Slavery is supposedly outlawed. People have been emancipate, so why is it that now it is so cheap to buy labor and people are so disposable?

BALES: Well, slavery certainly continued after the end of legal slavery. Sadly, a lot of people including politicians seem to believe that they made it illegal so it disappeared which is a little bit like saying "after the ten commandments no one committed adultery ever again"--it didn't work out that way with slavery either, but primarily I believe it was about the glut of potentially enslavable people that was a flooded market so both the very dramatic increases in population, particularly in the developing world and the economic changes in the developing world that came with decolonization and so forth, also in a context where conflict can create situations of vulnerability it just meant that there were a lot more people who were available to enslave. It's rather hard to calculate precisely, but my best estimate is that there is something like 700 million people in the world that are potentially enslavable. In other words, they don't have the protections of the rule of law; they don't have enough money into their pocket to buy their way out of a problem. They're in a situation, they may be refugees for example where they are potentially enslavable and that's an interesting paradox because if we only have about 30 million people in the world in slavery, its actually, a good thing that it's only 30 million, if we have 700 million who are potentially enslavable. 

GRILLOT: So this relates to another book that you've written about ending slavery. You just identified a number of causes potentially enslaving people, conflict, a lack of development, these sorts of things. So, one would presume that then to end slavery you have to address these issues. You have to address conflict where it happens; you have to address poverty where it happens so that that’s what is going to prevent slavery from happening. Ending it where it is and preventing it from happening further into the future?

BALES: The answer to that question is yes or no, because you can't end all the poverty in the world before you begin to end slavery but you can certainly go to the places where people are in slavery, address their enslavement first, almost as a law enforcement issue so that you do what's necessary to come to freedom and to establish themselves economically and as citizens and one of the interesting things is that that then begins to address the poverty problem that their suffering from as well. Once freed they have the chance to work for themselves, they begin to be much more productive and they also get very excited actually about earning and providing for their own children.

GRILLOT: So this concept of freedom, obviously slavery is the opposite of freedom. If you are emancipated, you are no longer a slave and it has all of these positive outcomes, but you've also discussed this concept in your work of "botched emancipation" and how a lack of support after emancipation, you started this conversation by saying just because we ended slavery doesn't mean it really ended. Is that what you are referring to? What does that mean?

BALES: Normally, when I talk about the botched emancipation I use as the example what we did here in the United States because if you look across all the anti-slavery movements and all the situations of slavery in history, we kind of blew it as Americans in the most serious way, compared to other places. Most countries brought an end to legal slavery without having a civil war that killed 700,000 people and most countries did so without necessarily lifting, as we did in this country, 2 million people up out of slavery and then dumping them without access to credit, to meaningful political participation, without access to decent education and then putting them within a context of discrimination and prejudice and violence. We're still paying the price for the botched emancipation of 1865. You can see that today as well. There are groups that are focused on "rescuing" people and they'll dash in and find people in slavery and they'll pull them out and they say "you're free now" good luck to you, but the truth is that if you've been in slavery for a while and you have nothing, you're destitute, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder you may have terrible injuries. There are many things that could come out of slavery that way. If you don't give people a chance, it doesn't have to be 40 acres and mule, if you don't give them some kind of a chance and some kind of a help, and some kind of therapy perhaps or education or even just a loan to get something started, they can easily fall back into a situation where it may not be slavery, but they are certainly going to be vulnerable to other kinds of exploitation.

GRILLOT: So obviously this subject is extremely complicated in the sense that trying to prevent these conditions from arising to begin with, trying to address those challenges where you do find them, those millions of people tens of millions of people that are experiencing enslavement today, but then trying to provide them the services, the support, the institutions, the opportunities beyond emancipation. Like any other extremely complicated issue, where do you attack this problem? I assume the answer is from all fronts all at once but do we become paralyzed? I think to many of us that study issues and know something about human trafficking, you sometimes feel extremely helpless and hopeless and there is a significant amount of despair. How do you address this issue that is invisible in some ways, is so far away in other ways. How do you bridge that gap?

BALES: We should not feel despair and we should not feel overwhelmed. If we do we're actually looking to closely at the problem part of this and not at the opportunity. The truth of the matter is that 29 million people in the world in slavery is the smallest fraction of the global population to ever be in slavery. It's a minute fraction of the global population. Somewhere around 150 billion dollars a year that's the slave part of economic output in the global economy is the smallest fraction of the global economy ever represented by slave labor. The number of people in slavery is smaller than the number of people with HIV. We're actually living in a world where the eradication of slavery is possible, and I actually think its probable because its illegal in every country, most cultures have now rejected it on moral grounds as well as political grounds and while its complex and while its criminal, we're actually in a place where change can occur and not least because to address another part of your question, you do have to start in many places at once. You have to get government policies right, you have to get businesses lined up to make sure they don't have slavery in their supply chain, but if you really want to end slavery, you go where slavery is and you do, for example, the community organizing you have to do in communities where slavery exists so that the community says "We reject slavery this will be a slave free place and a slave-proof place from this day forward." That's where you end slavery, and if you do that enough, it spreads and slavery comes to an end.

GRILLOT: So part of the solution then involves educating those of us who consume goods that might be produced by slave labor but also working with business, making sure they are able to and willing to remove from their supply chain those suppliers that are using improper labor practices and modern day slave. You recently wrote an article about how slavery is bad for business. Can you tell us a little about how you can analyze this issue and help us understand its negative impact on the economy because I think many of us think "that's why it happens, because it's good for business, it happens because people are making money. It's profit driven people wouldn't do it if they weren't making money" so how is it bad for business.

BALES: It's good for criminal businesses and if we're okay with all businesses making good profits whether they're run by legitimate or criminals then that's the kind of capitalism I personally don't adhere to. The truth is that very often, leaving slavery aside, when criminal businesses are extremely profitable, it begins to eat into legitimate business, we know that occurs all over the world. The situation fundamentally is that slavery is like a drag on an economy. You take whatever the portion of you population is in slavery and you remove them as economic agents from your economy. Slaves consume virtually nothing and their production side is actually very low. Most slaves in the world operate in derivative, dirty, dangerous jobs that produce at a very low level. They're cost effective because they're free, but in terms of output, they're pathetic, which is a strange word to use about a slave, I apologize about that in a way, but its true, and they don't consume. So they are almost a zero in the economic equation anywhere they are. What we've been doing over a number of years is carrying out longitudinal research in areas like northern India where we trace villages where almost everyone in the village is in hereditary slavery and we survey very carefully their activities in slavery through the process of liberation and out the back end in freedom. We're about 7 years into watching that process occur, and everything points in the same direction. There's a very significant freedom dividend that when you bring people out of slavery in a community, particularly when that's a high portion of the population, the local economy begins to spiral up very quickly because people buy things and they also take their children out of the workplace immediately. I have to say every slave family that I've ever met that's come to freedom, the first thing they want to do is build a school for their kids and get their kids to safety and education and then they want more food and they want medicine and they want tools and they want to do other things besides swing a hammer and break up rocks and it all begins to work and ironically sometimes slave masters do better economically when they are stopped from being slave masters because they are often rich people who own the shops where freed slaves go to buy things and they realize that they are doing better in retail than they did from slave labor.

GRILLOT: An absolutely fascinating description but I have to ask, before we go, about your most recent project, the thing you are working on now that we will be seeing soon is this relationship between slavery and the environment. Can you please tell us very quickly what that has to do because the economic argument is fundamental and we all think about that, but we don't think about the connection between slavery and environmental degradation.

BALES: In a nutshell, after I was studying slavery around the world, I began to notice that everywhere I studied slavery the environment was just a catastrophe. It was wrecked and I set out to measure how much environmental destruction is carried out by slave labor, when I spent about five years doing that all around the world, I realized that is was much more than anyone had ever guessed to the point particularly with things like deforestation, the shocking calculation is that if slavery were a country, even though its only 30 million people, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States. In other words, if we actually wanted to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to the point to stabilize climate change, one way to do that would be to enforce the laws against slavery.

GRILLOT: Absolutely fascinating. We will be looking forward to that. Thank you so much Kevin for being with us today to talk to us about this extremely important topic, thank you.

BALES: It's been my pleasure. It's great to be back.

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