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“The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today”

StorySeptember 09, 2009
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We speak with Kevin Bales, a leader in the abolition movement to end modern-day slavery and co-author of The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. Bales estimates some 27 million people labor as slaves today — more than at anytime in history. Bales has also helped expose modern-day slavery in the United States, where he estimates between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year. He writes, “There has never been a single day in our America, from its discovery and birth right up to the moment you are reading this sentence, without slavery.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 09, 2024“The Cost of Inheritance”: Meet the Descendants of Enslavers and Enslaved Fighting for Reparations
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show with Kevin Bales, a leader in the abolition movement to end modern-day slavery. He estimates some 27 million people labor as slaves today — more than at any time in history.

In 2001 Kevin Bales founded Free the Slaves, the American sister organization of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights group. He has worked to liberate thousands of slaves in India, Nepal, Haiti, Ghana, Brazil, Ivory Coast and Bangladesh. He’s also helped expose modern-day slavery right here in the United States, where he estimates between 14,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the country each year.

Kevin Bales writes, quote, “There has never been a single day in our America, from its discovery and birth right up to the moment you are reading this sentence, without slavery.” Kevin Bales is co-author with Ron Soodalter of the new book The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

KEVIN BALES: Great to be here. Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the magnitude of the problem.

KEVIN BALES: Well, in the United States, we’re imagining — our best estimates are that there are about forty to fifty thousand people in slavery at any one time, and that’s a very conservative estimate.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “slavery”?

KEVIN BALES: Well, I’m talking about real slavery. If you look at slavery across all human history, and you sort of strip away the packaging, whether it’s racialized or religious-based, and you look at the actual core of the slavery, it’s one person completely controlling another one. They use slavery to maintain that control. They use that control to exploit them economically, and then they don’t pay them anything. But the key is the violent control.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us examples here in the United States.

KEVIN BALES: Well, a classic example would be slavery in agriculture in South Florida. People are lured into the United States, promised a good job, but when they arrive in Immokalee County in Florida, they find themselves at gunpoint, picking tomatoes, picking oranges, locked up at night, brutalized if they try to escape or brutalized if they try to protest in any way, obviously paid nothing. It’s a kind of slavery, you simply can’t walk away. And in some ways, that’s the key — one of the key questions we ask if we’re trying to decide: is this case slavery? The first rule of thumb is, we say, can this person walk away, even if it’s into a worse situation?

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about particular situations, people you have met, how you learn about these situations.

KEVIN BALES: You know, an amazing case that I know very well is that of Given Kachepa. Given was born in Zambia. He was an eleven-year-old when — and very active in a local choir, a boys’ choir, when a man from Texas heard them sing in Zambia, thought —- and convinced them that if they were to come with him to the United States, they could sing in churches, raise funds to build schools, and improve their families’ lives in the extreme poverty of Zambia.

And he brought them over to the United States, got visas for them as a touring boys’ choir, and then enslaved them, so that they were taken from church to church, they were not fed regularly, they worked twelve— and eighteen-hour days, they slept all in one small trailer. If they complained about their treatment, they were denied food, they were beaten. And if they weren’t singing to raise money in this charity scam, they were given jobs like digging the holes for swimming pools.

He was eleven years old when this happened. Remarkably, it was actually at that time an immigration agent that figured out something was wrong, couldn’t quite understand what was wrong, but figured out something was wrong, and began to dig into the situation. And ultimately, Given was freed. He was an orphan in Zambia. And one of the families of a church where they had sung took him in. And now I’m just very excited, because I just got the news last week that he had finished university and passed his exams to enter dental school.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened to the slavers, those who —-

KEVIN BALES: Arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: —- enslaved the choir?

KEVIN BALES: Arrested, were convicted. But the man who was the ringleader died of a brain tumor before he was incarcerated. But I have to say, that’s not the usual scenario. Most of the people who are enslaved in the United States, if they come out of slavery, it won’t necessarily be through the police; it’ll be through either a service organization, often of their ethnicity, say a Chinese American group or a West African group, who will help them to find their way through.

Or it’s people like you and me, neighbors, who will say, “I don’t know what’s going on next door, but I don’t like the looks of it.” And they will begin to dig around and think about it and help people. About a third of the people who come out of slavery in the United States come out of slavery because an active person in the community has done the right thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about slavery today in the United States and US immigration policy?

KEVIN BALES: Yes. There’s a whole raft of serious problems within our immigration controls that creates situations in which it makes it very easy to enslave people. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

One is the guest worker system. We have a guest worker system that was put into place in the 1940s. It allows farm owners and sometimes factory owners to apply for a special visa to bring what are called guest workers into the country. The law itself is a pretty good one, and it allows for the inspection of these workers and their job conditions, and it guarantees them certain rights. The difficulty is, we have no labor inspectors assigned to this to speak of. Only a tiny handful for the hundred — for the thousands and thousands of people in this situation. The result is that most people who bring in guest workers know they’ll never be checked up on. So they bring them in, and they put them to work in any way they like, never pay them, use brutality to control them, lock them up at the same time.

And one that’s very shocking to me is the difference between — and a very racialized difference, for young girl — young teenage, nice, middle-class European girls who want to come over to be an au pair. There’s a special visa for that. It’s called the J1 visa. It comes with guarantees, inspections, monitoring, orientation classes, education provisions. Fantastic. They come to be an au pair. They get a wonderful experience in our culture. They get a chance at a better education, so forth. But if you’re the same girl but you happen to be from West Africa, you come in on a B1 visa: no guarantees, no monitors, no education provisions, no inspections. They check your passport at the airport, and after that moment, you can be anywhere. It’s like a conduit, like a funnel, into the enslavement of young domestic workers.

AMY GOODMAN: How can that be that there would be that distinction? And who is the J — you said if you’re from West Africa, it’s B1. J1 is…?

KEVIN BALES: Western Europeans, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why the distinction?

KEVIN BALES: You know, I’ve asked that question, too, and I’m not getting straight answers. But, I mean, when I looked at it, when I discovered this and really began to compare the laws, in writing this book, I was shocked, because it simply seems to be institutionalized legal racism.

AMY GOODMAN: You say that the majority of slaves, Kevin Bales, in this country are women who are brought in for the sex trade. How exactly does it operate?

KEVIN BALES: Well, it’s not quite the majority; it’s the largest proportion. Just under half of the people enslaved in the United States, we believe, are enslaved into prostitution.

The flow of people into the United States into slavery, it follows the other types of immigration into the United States, so people who are trying to build new lives, trying to build a better life. Many enter illegally; some enter legally. But the situation that turns it from smuggling or immigration into slavery is what happens when they get here, so that if they may believe they’re — they’ve got a real job, they may believe they have a legal job, but when they arrive, then someone says to them, “Actually, no. You do what we tell you from now on. If you don’t, you get hurt.” So it’s about the stepping into a criminal situation.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does it work? How do these women end up here? How are they lured here? How do they get in the country?

KEVIN BALES: Well, “lure” is the right word, because people are searching for ways to improve their lives and often just to get jobs to feed their kids. And recruiters around the world, whether it’s Central America or Eastern Europe or the Far East, say to people, “We have a job for you. We have a way for you to get to the land of plenty and have a better life,” and convince them and, interestingly, often get them to pay for their own enslavement, say, “We can get you there, but in fact we’re going to need you to pay a fee to cover your transport costs and so forth.” So, a lot of people who come into slavery in the United States walk into slavery and pay for the privilege of being enslaved into prostitution, agricultural work, domestic work, sweatshop work, you name it.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about slavery globally.

KEVIN BALES: Around the world, about 27 million. That’s a number that’s now been corroborated by several other sources. Most of the people in slavery around the world are in South Asia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal. Most of them are in very dirty, simple forms of work that we can all imagine people in slavery: agriculture, working in quarries, mineral extraction, and so forth. Most people in slavery are not human trafficking victims. They’re in sedentary forms of slavery. And there’s still a great deal of hereditary slavery in the world. Probably ten to twelve million people are in forms of hereditary slavery. Something called collateral debt bondage in South Asia is often — normally hereditary.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain collateral.

KEVIN BALES: It’s an interesting wrinkle that they hadn’t quite figured out, you know, in the subprime world here, which is that when you loan money to a family that’s very, very poor and has no assets, you only loan it to them if they agree to give themselves, their bodies, their family, and all of their work, as collateral until the loan is repaid. But you can see the catch-22. If you can’t — if everything about you belongs to the slaveholder, to the money lender, until it’s repaid, how do you ever repay it? Because they own your work and they own you as collateral until the repayment happens. So the debt passes from generation to generation. I’ve met — I don’t know — hundreds of families who are in their fourth, fifth — that they can remember — generation of enslavement against an original debt that could be $10.

AMY GOODMAN: When I introduced you, I talked about how you have been responsible for liberating thousands of slaves in India, in Nepal, Haiti, Ghana, Brazil, Ivory Coast, Bangladesh. How?

KEVIN BALES: Well, you were very generous to say I was responsible. I have to say, it’s the organizations who were. And we — and I don’t —-

AMY GOODMAN: Free the Slaves, your group.

KEVIN BALES: Free the Slaves. And it’s not that I’m out kicking in doors and carrying people out on my shoulder, anything like that, because we work with local activists, we work with local communities, as well. And we have our own workers there, and I’ve been there, as well.

But we do that in a whole number of ways. There’s not a single silver bullet. Sometimes it’s literally about kicking in doors, reaching in, in northern India, for example, to carpet looms, where children have been enslaved, tricked, kidnapped and enslaved. And you have to kick in the door, grab them and take them away before the thugs arrive, and get them to the rehabilitation center.

But in some places where it’s a community which is -— we actually call it the Fannie Lou Hamer model, because we go into communities where the entire village will be enslaved in a hereditary debt bondage, working in a quarry or working in agriculture, and we have to do it very subtly, like community workers, organizers, and say, “How long have you been like this? Oh, you all work for the same man? Where’s the school? There’s no school? Oh,” and then, in time, begin to say, “You know, there’s a village down the road that used to be just like this one, but they have their own school now, and they work for themselves,” and slowly open up the idea of freedom for families who haven’t known freedom for generations. And the beautiful moment is when that group of families and the village take the collective conscious decision for freedom. And then we stand with them as they step out to freedom and hit that moment of crisis, when the slaveholder is ready to use violence to keep them in their place.

AMY GOODMAN: You say, Kevin Bales, that many of the products that we use, from coltan in our cell phones to cocoa to sugar to coffee, are touched by slavery.

KEVIN BALES: It’s absolutely the case. There’s a whole raft of those. And cotton is another one that has slavery from several continents. The list is very long.

The real challenge of this, though, is that, unlike the slavery of the past, where, say, almost all the cotton out of the Deep South had some touch of slavery in it, today maybe two or three percent of the cotton has slavery in it. Maybe two or three percent of the cocoa has slavery in it. And what that means is that simple responses like boycotts of products are actually counterproductive; they harm the majority of farmers who don’t use slaves in an attempt to hammer out the ones who do. And it makes it a little more challenging and a little more complex.

But the way that we’ve discovered that works best is actually to, instead of, say, attacking corporations and boycotting corporations, who don’t do the farming on the ground, who are actually just part of that system of production and distribution, but bringing them into the mix and getting them to pay for the work on the ground. Now, we’ve done this with the chocolate industry to what I think is enormous success. And about $50 million has been transferred out of chocolate company profits over the last seven years into work on the ground in West Africa to remove slavery and child labor from cocoa production. Now, that’s money that never would have come to human rights, never would have come to anti-slavery work, if we hadn’t brought them in at the beginning. Now, we did have Senator Harkin and Congressman Engel to help kind of push those guys into the room to talk about it at first, but it means that things are happening in West Africa that never would have happened otherwise.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Kevin Bales. His book with Ron Soodalter is called The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today. And he’s founder of Free the Slaves, that’s based in Washington, DC.

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“The Cost of Inheritance”: Meet the Descendants of Enslavers and Enslaved Fighting for Reparations

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