It is possible to end human slavery

Kevin Bales

What is Human Trafficking?

The United Nations defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons by improper means – such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion – for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.

The organization End Slavery Now breaks slavery down into these categories:

Domestic Servitude: Employees working in private homes are forced or coerced into serving and/or fraudulently convinced that they have no option to leave.

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Sex Trafficking: Women, men or children that are forced into the commercial sex industry and held against their will by force, fraud or coercion.

Forced Labor: Human beings forced to work under the threat of violence and for no pay. These slaves are treated as property and exploited to create a product for commercial sale.

Bonded Labor: Individuals who are compelled to work in order to repay a debt and unable to leave until the debt is repaid. It is the most common form of enslavement in the world.

Child Labor: Any enslavement — whether forced labor, domestic servitude, bonded labor or sex trafficking — of a child.

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Forced Marriage: Women and children who are forced to marry another without their consent or against their will.

Child Soldiers: When children are forced, coerced, or persuaded to become soldiers and engage in combat in violation of international norms forbidding the use of children as members of armed forces.

Human slavery is as old as the human race, with some of the first recorded writings from as long as five thousand years ago being lists of slaves captured, sold or killed.

It takes many forms and faces – child soldiers, women and children exploited for sex, people promised employment only to be forced into sweatshop operations for fear or deportation, people forced to work off a debt that never seems to get smaller.

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But modern technology is making it easier to identify the most likely places on Earth for human trafficking and providing the data and other information needed to bring justice and freedom to the survivors.

In fact, Kevin Bales, professor of Contemporary Slavery and Research Director of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, told attendees at a human trafficking conference at TCU in February that perhaps for the first time in human history, it may be possible to eliminate slavery.

Bales says that worldwide, about 40.3 million people are in some form of modern slavery, including labor and sex trafficking. And while that is a big number, it also is the smallest fraction of the global population ever enslaved.

“We are actually standing at a point in human history where slavery is standing on the edge of its own extinction. It’s so small that with a hard-enough push – maybe not gone forever – but certainly, very dramatically reduced,” Bales said.

Bales was a co-founder of Free the Slaves in Washington, D.C., and co-author of the Global Slavery Index. Working undercover to meet slaves and slaveholders, Bales exposed how modern slavery penetrates the global economy in his Pulitzer-nominated book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. The film based on this book, Slavery: A Global Investigation (TrueVision), which he co-wrote for HBO and Channel 4, won a Peabody Award and two Emmys.

Science and technology has long served slavery, Bales said, and now science and technology is serving to eradicate it.

He showed the audience cuneiform symbols for woman, man and woman-slave, and said he was taught about this by someone who is an ancient history scholar, who told him that the very first symbol for slave was mountain person, mountain man or mountain .

If you can read the rest of the cuneiform, it says: “And we left our space in Mesopotamia, went up into the mountain to harvest the slave-animals that we could bring back to put into the farms.”

Bales noted that early Iron Age technology resulted in the creation of shackles and chains, the kinds of equipment used to control slaves.

Gesturing to a slide on a Viking ship, he called it “a slave capture-and-delivery system.”

“The Vikings established one of the greatest slave trading empires in human history,” Bales said.

Their ships – Blitzkrieg ships, he said – could reach a coastal town, warriors could jump out, grab all the people they wanted, put them on the boats, and get away before any resistance was there.

He cited early medieval records as saying: “And the Vikings came to Dublin and they left with about 2,000 women.”

Today, he said, one of the genetic tests of the population of Iceland show the men are 20 percent Celtic or Irish and the women are 60 percent Celtic or Irish.

But science and technology which served slavery for millennia can be turned against it.

He cited global data-sharing.

“For many, many years lots of us have been trying to get the world’s data holders to share their data on slavery, to get the CIA to talk to the MI5 in the U.K., to get different governments to work with each other, to share the information they have about slavery,” he said. An agreement to do that was reached just last October.

“We also have been working on the economics of slavery, because slavery is, after all … is an economic enterprise. It’s not only economic,” Bales said, “because people engage in it for cultural reasons, sexist reason, myogenous reasons, racist reasons. You know all of these things are part of the motivators. But at the end of the day, usually there’s a profit to be made.”

An image in his slide presentation showed pictures of young boys carrying heavy cut stones backpack style at a quarry in Nepal.

“They’ve been tricked away from their parents. Their parents were told that if they came and worked for this man, they’d be given some good money and a chance of schooling,” Bales said.

But they were basically used as donkeys.

“They are a perfect example of the disposability and the very low cost of people who are common slaves today,” he said.

It might cost a recruiter $10 in local currency to lure parents into thinking they are doing a good thing for their child. They don’t realize that the child is disposable.

They are carrying weight which often are more than they weight, and they can easily trip and break a leg on the rocky paths.

“The slave holders go down and they take the stone but leave the kid because it costs more to take them to medical care than it does to go to a village and offer an advance of another $10 for another child,” Bales said.

That illustrates a change in the economics of slavers from previous history.

“It’s only been in the last 50 to 60 years that the price of human beings, either in markets or just in acquisition, has collapsed,” Bales said.

There are slave records from ancient Rome, ancient Greece and, more recently, from the United States in the Deep South.

The average cost of a 19-year-old agricultural slave in 1850 in the Deep South was about $1,200, about $40,000 to $45,000 in current dollars.

That collapse alters the necessary underpinnings of how slavery works, he said, and that’s why he titled his first book Disposable People.

“Because I realized we’d moved from a world in which slaves were capital investments to being disposable inputs. No longer like a tractor, more like a Styrofoam cup that you can crumple up and throw away when you’re done using it,” Bales said.

One implication of that is that the value of slave labor has dropped to the point that total eradication of slavery would have almost no impact of the world economy, he said.

If slavery were a country or a state in the United States, it would have the population of Algeria or be just a little larger than California, Bales said. It’s gross domestic product – $150 billion a year – would equal Bulgaria or Kansas. And it would be the third largest emitter of CO2 in the world after China and the United States.

That’s because the kind of labor people are forced into are industries like drying fish or making bricks in kilns or clearcutting the world’s remaining forests by hand.

That’s significant in terms of climate change, Bales said, but it also is significant in the eradication of slavery.

“Whether or not you think there is such a thing as climate change, whether or not you think environmental protections are important, you will almost always agree that slavery is wrong and we know that slavery is illegal in every country in the world, and that it’s illegal at all international levels as well,” Bales said.

“In other words, if we’re trying to reduce all the gas guzzling cars of China and the United States, we’d have to do it almost one by one, it’d be a really tough job, and it wouldn’t at this point be legal.

“But if we wanted to remove slaves from situations where they are generating CO2, it’s perfectly legal. In fact, it’s encouraged. We’re supposed to enforce the law around the world,” he said.

One issue in fighting human slavery is that it can be difficult to detect.

But Bales and his Rights Lab associates have figured out how to identify potential slavery concentrations through analysis of satellite images and crowd-based research.

They are places like brick kilns, fish-drying operations and deforest operations in places like the Amazon Rain Forest.

Information gathering and sharing techniques have developed to the point that reasonably accurate numbers can be developed and shared and satellite information can be used to spot areas where slavery is at a high level of possibility.

One example is identifying brick kilns because brick kilns historically have operated with slave labor, Bales said.

Using the crowd-based research site Zooniverse, Bates and his team taught volunteers to identify what appear to be kilns in the Nepal and Pakistan area.

“Because I’ve worked on slavery and brick kilns in the past, I have been careful to bring the team a lot of pictures from ground level so you could see what it would look like from ground level as well as from above,” Bales said.

Once enough multiple people have identified kilns, machine learning kicks in and computers are able to extrapolate from that information to identify other sites though artificial intelligence algorithms.

“And before we knew it, we had every single brick kiln in India, Pakistan, Nepal and over in China identified. About 48,000 with the precise location. Now we’re going back into some different filters to separate the live ones from ones that are not,” Bales said.

“We’ve got a GPS position for every single brick kiln,” he said.

Bales says knowing the locations doesn’t solve the slavery issue, but it does tell authorities where to go and look.

“We work with groups on the ground. They’re able to check and see what’s going on in each one. Not every single brick kiln has slave labor, but as I say, it’s a very high likelihood. So, it’s a step. It’s a step along that way,” he said.

A similar process was used to locate fish-drying camps in the UNESCO World Heritage Centre site of the Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the largest such forests in the world, on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal.

“I saw these fish processing camps where I was told and observed that child slaves were being used, and I thought at the time I was there, I bet I could see these in the satellite. So, I looked and I found it,” Bales said. “They take almost only children into these camps because they’re easier to control.”

Satellite images of the Amazon also show areas where slave labor is likely to be occurring in illegal clearing of the forest.

“The reason why we’re talking about this in terms of trafficking and slavery, is it’s not bulldozers that are used to destroy the Amazon. It’s enslaved workers with axes,” Bales said.

This is important, because one of the issues with halting human slavery is knowing where it is taking place and where authorities can go to check.

One measure is what is called the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) that measures environmental protections in countries. Across the globe, countries with low EPI scores have high slavery numbers and counties with high EPI scores have lower incidents of slavery.

“These things are at the global level, they’re linked and correlated and significantly so,” Bales said.

Another significant development is the ability to refine the numbers of people in slavery.

“One of the greatest problems we’ve had in the work on contemporary slavery and human trafficking is that while you can get decent measures of the amount of people who are trafficked and enslaved in poor countries, often by random sample surveys, in well-off countries like the United States, like the countries of western Europe, there are so few … there are so few in the population that you can’t catch them,” he said.

That’s changing with the application of a technique called multiple systems estimation, used interestingly for calculating how many fish there are in a lake.

“We’ve now done this for the U.K. So, while we know we have 2,500 actual known cases of people in slavery in the U.K., ones known to the police, we know that we are pulling that from a pool of somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 people in slavery in the country,” Bales said.

The technique has been on in the United States in New Orleans, where he had a research team,

“That was the only place where we could get enough cooperation from city governments and make it happen,” he said.

There are about 200 or 300 known cases, but the estimation indicates that there’s probably 1,000 people trafficked and enslaved in New Orleans.

Wars and military conflict have been a source of slavery millennia.

“We have a terrorist unit within the lab, a small group who have now been able to get their hands-on brand new recovered internal records from northern Iraq that had been abandoned by ISIS,” Bales said. “They have shown that, ISIS in 2014 was making $2 million a day from the trafficking of slaves. They were funding terrorism and military action on the back on slave labor.”

He cited an article in the ISIS-published online magazine Dabiq with the headline “The Rise of Slavery.”

“It’s about bringing back slavery,” Bales said. “About why, under the twisted and deformed ideological interpretation of Islam created by ISIS, slavery becomes a good thing. And that particular article is terminally boring to read, but it’s fundamentally this wacko justification for why it’s OK for ISIS to enslave people.”

What Bales described was a confluence of information gathering and sharing that foster an understanding of the interrelationship of modern slavery with the global economy and environmental concerns that makes action to end or reduce slavery possible.

Controlling just the kind of slavery that is used to cut forests and make bricks and charcoal could have a major impact on climate at little cost to the global economy.

“So, they wouldn’t put 2.5 billion tons of CO2 into the world. … If the people who had been caught up and enslaved to do the environmentally destructive work were then paid, perhaps from carbon credits on the international carbon credit market, to replant the forests that they had been forced illegally to cut, they would begin to sequester the carbon out of the air, not just fail to put the carbon up,” he said.

Taking action, he said, is a low-cost investment in economic growth, because governments basically just pay law enforcement and social services at the rates they already are being paid without the need to build a lot of factories or a lot of highways.

Bales said the first anti-slavery movement in history began in May 1787.

“It was the first human rights campaign in history. It achieved its aims in about 20 years – the end of legal slave trade across the Atlantic to the British Empire,” he said.

Bales said there were four anti-slavery movements in history, including the current one.

But they have not been led by business and government.

“Activists leap, survivors leap, communities leap, churches leap, but the last people at the table are politicians, and they say, ‘Haven’t we done good?’ as they take credit for passing the law. It’s harsh to say that but look across all the countries in the world. It’s the same story over and over,” he said.