Kevin Bales, a professor at the University of Surrey, England, has made clarifying the causes and forms of contemporary slavery his principal topic of research and is considered to be a leader in this field of economics. His book’s title, Disposable People, correctly announces that he practices social science with a moral edge, for he finds and reveals how victims of the new slavery are often robbed of both body and soul.
Concerned that some think the end of legal slavery meant the end of slavery, while others have only slight knowledge of instances of global slavery from stories in newspapers and reports by human rights activists, Bales wants to both widen and deepen the world’s awareness of what he clearly considers an evil. His chosen methodology both produces convincing data and puts human faces on slavery’s victims. At the same time it reveals the complexity of the system that holds so many in its grip and defies a simple solution.
Bales believes that his academic approach will give the study of global slavery a needed “overarching conceptual framework, as well as the time and space needed to go deeply into the social and economic relationships that underpin slavery.” To find what circumstances and forces need to be present for illegal slavery to flourish is a challenging undertaking, given the global spread of contemporary slavery.
Slavery, Bales finds, usually occurs in a developing country that has experienced both rapid economic growth and rapid population growth: in a get-rich-quick economy with greedy, ruthless entrepreneurs willing to prey on an endless supply of desperately impoverished victims. Also integral to the success of slavery, illegal everywhere by the late twentieth century, is not ownership but violence, both threatened and actual, conveniently overlooked or more frequently colluded in by political, military, and police power. Finally, because the supply of potential slaves far exceeds the demand, the slave master works his slaves to the point of uselessness and then disposes of them. Short-term slavery, from a few weeks to a few years, is common. Hopelessness and despair are much more common than rebellion among contemporary slaves. In this context, there exists for the most part no political will to champion the abolition of slavery, as existed in the United States in the nineteenth century, for example. Interestingly, racism is not inherent in most slavery today, as it was in the U.S. South; the victims of slavery chronicled by Bales are persons of color and, except in Mauritania, their immediate masters are people of the same color.
Bales identifies three major slavery systems: chattel slavery, debt bondage, and contract slavery. A chattel slave is a slave because he is born into a family that has been enslaved for centuries. Bales finds examples of this type of slavery in parts of Africa and among some Arab peoples. Among his case studies, Mauritania exemplifies chattel slavery. Debt bondage results from an unpaid loan with a catch-22 of ambiguous terms enmeshed with never-ending debt. India and Pakistan provide examples of debt bondage slavery. Contracts are trick agreements that look like work-for-pay agreements but turn into slavery situations once the worker is imprisoned at his or her new workplace or brothel, usually very distant from home. Thailand and Brazil provide examples of contract slavery.
The greater part of Bales’s text is the presentation of a series of case studies of the particular place of slavery in the economic, social, and cultural structures of five countries. He chose this methodology because he had no body of earlier research on contemporary slavery on which to build. He applied the “same set of guiding research questions” throughout the case studies he made. (These questions are available to the reader in an appendix to the text.) He also employed researchers from each country he visited to assist him in his study and to work as translators during interviews. One ever-present concern he faced, because he was studying a criminal activity protected by law enforcement agencies, was safety, first of the slaves and then of himself. Finally, in addition to the case studies, Bales accumulated as much relevant data as he could on each country’s historical setting. This method yields convincing evidence to back up Bales’s assertions about both the similarities and differences that exist in slavery in various venues in the late twentieth century; the book is a credible source of information on his topic.
The case studies and supplementary research produced much detailed information. Bales wisely chose not to pack all his data into this book, thus making the text readable for a wider audience. One important part of his research that imbues the text...
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