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The cost of slavery

Marketplace Staff May 26, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL:RYSSDAL: We didn’t send Scott to Cambodia by chance. The vast majority ofthe world’s slaves are in Southeast Asia, so it seemed a logical place tostart. Kevin Bales is the president of the nonprofit group Free the Slaves.

And Mr. Bales, let me ask you, where does Cambodia rank on the list ofoffenders?

KEVIN BALES: Well, it’s right up there at the top, or you might want tosay at the bottom. And it’s also in a region that has a whole lot of verysignificant problems of human trafficking and other kinds of enslavement. Andthat whole Southeast Asia region is something of a hot spot. They’ve beendoing it for a very long time in Southeast Asia. It’s also true that thepoverty in, particularly, countries like Laos and Cambodia create a situationof extreme vulnerability. And then you’ve got rogue governments like that inBurma that are actually enslaving their own citizens.

RYSSDAL: Are human beings, on a relative scale over time, are human beingsexpensive today?

BALES: Oh, gosh, no. One of the most important things aboutcontemporary forms of slavery has been the absolute collapse in the price ofhuman beings in the last 50 to 60 years. And so it’s a very remarkable changein human history.

If you go back to Mississippi in 1850, the average slave, a prime field hand,would cost about $1,200 to $1,500, but those are 1850 dollars, which is about$40,000 in today’s money. You could go to Cambodia today and pick up a humanbeing for $100 or less.

RYSSDAL: Does it seem to you that there is more slavery now than ever?

BALES: Well, there are about 27 million people in slavery around theworld today. That’s a pretty significant jump over the last 50 to 60 years.At the same, while that may be the greatest number of individuals in slaveryever in human history, it’s also probably the smallest proportion of theglobal population to ever be in slavery.

RYSSDAL: You know, merely the fact that you and I are having thisconversation and the fact that, you know, the US State Department haspublished some research on human slavery and the sex trade specifically, itsort of implies that everybody knows about this yet nobody’s doing anythingabout it.

BALES: Well, I think we’re just hitting a moment where everyone isbeginning to understand that it’s around. Four or five years ago thesituation was practically the same, but it was literally that no one knewabout it. Now we’re standing, really, in a doorway. We know the shape of theproblem now for the first time probably ever. And we have very goodinformation from the United Nations and the US government. And now we’retrying to figure out precisely how to crack this problem.

RYSSDAL: Can you put a dollar amount on slavery and human trafficking?

BALES: Oh, sure we can. Obviously these are rough estimates. Mycalculations of the productive capacity of enslaved labor globally is around$14 billion a year, which sounds like a lot until you remember that’s whatAmericans spend of bluejeans every year. So it’s a lot if you’re a criminaland you’re able to put most of that in your pocket. But in terms of theglobal economy, it’s a drop in the ocean.

RYSSDAL: Is there an implicit racism here?

BALES: Occasionally. But I have to tell you that slavery today is notabout race. Slavery today is very much an equal opportunity exploiter. It’sall about vulnerability. Slave holders and slave exploiters really don’t carewhat color you are.

RYSSDAL: I’m trying to think of an analogy here in terms of how to fight thisproblem, and the one that comes to mind is the war on the drug traffickers.We’re not doing so well there, are we?

BALES: No, we’re not. But it’s also true that slavery is significantlydifferent in some of its very fundamental aspects. There’s a lot of reasonswhy it will be easier to crack the slavery problem as soon as we begin tobring some of the resources like those we bring to the war on drugs toslavery. We’re spending billions on the war on drugs. The total USexpenditure in the last year on slavery trafficking of all sorts came to alittle under $200 million.

RYSSDAL: If, as you say, we are now beginning to cross that threshold wheremore people know about this problem, what don’t we know yet?

BALES: Well, we don’t know precisely which strategies are the mosteffective in each of the different kinds of contexts where slavery exists.You know, we have hereditary debt bondage in northern India, for example,where people are in their fourth, fifth, sixth generation of slavery. That’sa very different kind of slavery to a Cambodian woman who’s tricked with apromise of a job and ends up in a brothel in Thailand. And we have to figureout the right ways to approach those different kinds of slavery that existaround the world.

RYSSDAL: Kevin Bales is the president of Free the Slaves. Mr. Bales, thanksfor your time.

BALES: My pleasure.

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