Expendable People: Slavery in the Age of Globalization(1)

By Bales, Kevin | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Expendable People: Slavery in the Age of Globalization(1)


Bales, Kevin, Journal of International Affairs


"Once officially abolished, slavery was transformed: adopted as an illicit enterprise, it has mirrored changes in the general economy. No longer viewed as property, people today are seen merely as disposable inputs into production."

Slavery continues around the world, but not in the way that most of us think of it. Since its wide abolition in the late 19th century, slavery has slipped easily into the shadow economy. Having done so, it began to change and develop in ways much more fluid and less visible than when it was legally regulated. In this article, I will illuminate the current state of slavery in the world. I will also demonstrate how new forms of slavery have evolved rapidly into a globalized economic pursuit since the Second World War. I will then examine two case studies of slavery as it is practiced in Mauritania and Sudan, addressing the difficult question of slave `redemption' in Sudan and shedding light on this problem by contextualising it historically and socially Finally, I will look at some possible approaches to confronting slavery in this century.

The history of slavery spans most of human history and has taken many forms. While slavery continues today in a much-changed way, our understanding of it tends to be stuck in the 19th century The common perception of slavery as the ownership of people has led to confusion about what constitutes slavery today. To add to this confusion, none of the 300 laws and international agreements written since 181S to combat this phenomenon have defined it in exactly the same way. This has resulted in a hodgepodge of terms and definitions covering chattel slavery, debt bondage and forced prostitution, as well as such divergent conditions as incest, organ harvesting and prison labor.

I define slavery as the complete control of a person for economic exploitation by violence or the threat of violence. The remarkable variety of human exploitation discussed below suggests, however, that there are gray areas even in this strict definition. My aim is to discuss only the social and economic relationships that constitute enslavement, even if this means excluding a discussion of prison labor, child labor or terribly exploited workers who are still free to leave their employers.

Using this definition of slavery as a guideline, my best estimate of the number of slaves in the world today is 27 million. Where are all these slaves? An estimated 15 to 20 million are bonded laborers in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The remainder is concentrated in Southeast Asia, Northern and Western Africa, and parts of South America, though slavery can be found in almost every country in the world including the United States, Japan, and many European countries. Today's total slave population is greater than the population of Canada and nearly five times greater than the population of Israel.

Most slaves tend to be used in simple, non-technological and traditional work. The largest proportion works in agriculture. Slaves are also used in many other kinds of work: brick making, mining and quarrying, textiles, leather working, prostitution, gem and jewelry making, cloth and carpet making, domestic servitude, forest-clearing, charcoal making and working in shops. While much of their work is aimed at local sale and consumption, slave-made goods filter throughout the global economy. For example, carpets, fireworks, jewelry, metal goods, steel (made with slave-produced charcoal), and foods such as grains, rice and sugar are exported directly to North America and Europe after being produced using slave labor. In countries where slavery and industry co-exist, cheap slave-made goods and food keep factory wages low and help make everything from toys to computers less expensive. In addition, transnational companies, acting through subsidiaries in the developing world, take advantage (often unwittingly) of slave labor to increase dividends to their shareholders.

Slavery, like many illegal activities, adapts rapidly to changing legal, economic and social conditions. …

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