Disposable People

by Kevin Bales

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1325

Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy is a nonfiction work by Kevin Bales exposing the widespread existence of human enslavement across the globe, even in contemporary society. Divided into seven chapters organized by country, Bales explores the economic, social, and cultural factors that contribute to the continuance of slavery, examining the conditions under which people find themselves enslaved and by which society at large can ignore such a violation of human rights.

Chapter one serves as an introduction to what Bales terms "new slavery." He redefines the terms of modern involuntary servitude in order to dispel the myth that such slavery no longer exists under the system of globalization. Instead of the legal ownership of human beings, Bales asserts that modern slavery entails total control under the threat of violence should an individual resist or rebel. As of the date of publication, Bales estimates that there are 27 million slaves around the world, a figure he arrived at after extensive independent research.

The areas with the largest concentration of slaves are Southeast Asia, Northern and Western Africa, and some parts of South America. The majority of these slaves are used in agriculture and manufacturing, their free labor being used to increase profits for the corporations and owners who benefit from their subjugation. According to Bales, the new slave is selected based on their degree of vulnerability to being enslaved rather than on racial or technical attributes. The last important lesson from this chapter is Bales’s discussion of how the new slavery became so prevalent: he cites rapid population growth and the accumulation of wealth by elites due to modernization. As a result, new slavery developed as a low-cost, high-profit tactic that renders the slave a short term, disposable quantity. Furthermore, Bales suggests that government corruption—or the ability for corporations and elites to buy immunity from legal consequences—is the largest institutional contributor to enduring profitability of the new slavery system.

In the next chapter, “Thailand: Because She Looks Like a Girl,” Bales discusses sexual slavery, using the story of 15-year-old Siri, whose parents sold her to a brothel. To explain how girls like Siri end up working in such conditions, Bales explores Thailand’s economic boom, “macho culture,” and the permissive attitude toward prostitution. Bales explains how Thai Buddhism enforces the spiritual inferiority of women, and how the economically depressed northern region of the country has relied on selling daughters as commodities during tough times. He suggests that religious ideas combined with economic hardship allow parents to justify the decision to sell their own children into sexual slavery.

Bales then talks about the increase of middle class laborers, which led to an increased demand for prostitutes, before explaining why many Thai women accept their husbands’ patronage of these sex workers. The patriarchal society in Thailand places men in control, and prostitution is often considered a normal masculine form of entertainment. He then explains at length how Thailand’s sex tourism industry, which does not rely on slaves, has still contributed to the problem of sexual slavery in a society that devalues girls and prizes status over substance.

The next chapter focuses on the dictatorship of Mauritania, which legally ended slavery in 1980. Despite this, the Mauritanian economy thrives on slave labor. Bales describes an antiquated form of slavery whereby the ruling class—often called “White Moors”—still own traditional slaves from a different ethnic group. In Mauritania, slavery is a cultural institution widely accepted, and while it does happen occasionally, violence is virtually unnecessary to maintain the system. An escaped or freed slave has no opportunities for work once they leave their master...

(This entire section contains 1325 words.)

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and, because of their lack of legal status, they often have no resources to survive. As a result, the majority of slaves remain with their masters. Furthermore, because the White Moors are the wealthiest class in the country, they have direct influence over the government, which does not want to tackle the slavery issue since it would hurt the Moors’ economic interests.

In chapter three, Bales turns his focus to Brazil, where a system of slave labor is used to enact the destruction of the country’s rain forests. The charcoal needed to produce steel in Brazil’s Minas Gerais region is created in the distant, impoverished area known as Mato Grosso do Sul. However, these regions lack the workforce necessary to produce the volume of charcoal the steel industry demands. To solve this problem, recruiters hire slum dwellers in urban areas to manufacture charcoal in these remote regions with the false promise of money and good working conditions. Instead, these young men are transported to isolated camps in the forest, where they are unable to leave due to lack of transportation or resources. To avoid charges of slavery, the companies use a series of subcontracts that obscure the workers’ role in clearing the forests. Bales then discusses how bad press from human rights organizations exposing the use of child labor in the charcoal camps led to change, although this just left many destitute women and children abandoned in shantytowns.

When discussing Pakistan in the next chapter, Bales describes the brick kilns that rely on whole families—including children—to produce their products. Using a system of debt bondage to keep families working in the kilns, kiln owners often use children as collateral if a family tries to leave. Many of the brick makers are minority Christians or Muslim Sheiks, and kiln owners are known to abuse and rape their female employees—one of the major reasons families flee kilns despite the risks. Perpetuating this system is the country’s widespread mistrust of religious minorities and the tension between modern capitalism and the old feudal system. Furthermore, political upheaval and police corruption have made it difficult for laws protecting brick workers to be enforced, resulting in the continuing cycle of poverty that traps families for generations in such painstaking, monotonous labor.

In chapter six, “India: The Ploughman’s Lunch,” Bales explains how debt-bonded laborers are paid not in wages but meager food rations, usually grain, wheat, or rice, on a daily basis. Expected to feed their entire family on the small quantities of food while also having no other money to support them, many of these laborers experience what Bales calls “slow starvation.” Bales suggests that India is one of the earliest sights of human slavery, but he also explains how the country is doing the most to eradicate this ancient institution. Rehabilitation programs help bonded families become free farm laborers, often allowing them to remain in their humble houses with land plots included. Bales explains how the NGOs in India are encouraged to participate in the rehabilitation programs, often providing pro bono legal aid to bonded workers. Bales remains cautiously optimistic about the success of these programs in India.

In the final chapter of the book, Bales proposes solutions to the problems of global slavery. He explains how controlling or slowing overpopulation will ease the strain on available resources, thereby decreasing the need to trap certain people in poverty. The next step is admitting individual responsibility for the problems of slavery; while multinational corporations benefit from the profits generated by slave labor, consumers create the demand for cheap goods that are often produced by slaves’ hands.

Bales also asserts that enforcing existing laws and motivating consumers to change buying habits are crucial to abolishing global slavery. To achieve these goals, Bales supports exposing the human rights abuses that occur within corrupt regimes that support slavery either directly or indirectly, thereby motivating countries to enact large-scale change. Finally, Bales supports investigating the channels of the slave trade and closing them off before allowing these freed slaves free access to a system of social supports that will allow them to become functioning members of society after a life of bondage. Otherwise, Bales fears, the new slavery will continue, as slaves are easily replaced in an endless cycle of abuse and dehumanization.