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Kevin Bales, Understanding Global Slavery:

A Reader. Berkeley: University of California Press,

David Northrup
Kevin Bales is president of the activist organization Free the Slaves, and his
book ends with a chapter entitled Three Steps to Stop Slavery (And Four Things
You Can Do Right Away). But he has written a surprisingly dispassionate
analysis of the problem, full of historical perspective, cultural relativism, and
nuanced judgments, as bets the fact that Bales is also a professor of sociology at
Roehampton University in south London. Neither a pedantic monograph nor a
partisan tract, Understanding Global Slavery is a well-written, serious examina-
tion of the forces that have made slavery an enduring and growing institution in
the contemporary world.
Bales argues that there are some 27 million slaves in the world today, and he
does not use the term slavery loosely. The book carefully traces the changing and
not fully consistent meaning assigned to the term slave in international
conventions, especially during the last century. Rather than a life-long heritable
condition, slavery is now understood to be a social and economic relationship
marked by the loss of free will, in which a person is forced through violence or the
threat of violence to give up the ability to sell freely his or her own labor power
(91). Among the most common types of modern slavery are debt bondage, forced
prostitution, and child labor. It is also increasingly linked to the world economy.
Cotton, chocolate, sugar, steel (even some of the metal in cell phones, may be
tinted by slavery) (21), he argues, while insisting the taint is small and not
susceptible to boycotts. His analysis is tempered by a remarkable sensitivity to the
social and cultural contexts in which slavery functions. He refuses to demonize
slave owners, pointing out that his own interviews have revealed that they see
themselves (as did slave owners of old) as respectable businessmen and pillars of
the community. Despite its considerable propensity for abuse, he also notes that
slavery is always a social relationship between two individuals.
One of the persistent strengths of the book is its historical grounding. It traces
not just the evolving denition of slavery over time, but the ways in which the
institution has adapted itself to changing circumstances. Bales shows how the
effects of globalization on slavery operate at different levels. On one hand, better
global transportation links have increased human trafcking of slaves, while
population growth has driven down the cost of a slave. On the other hand, the
movement of jobs can make modern slavery a short-term expedient rather than a
lifetime burden. Globalization also affects slavery at the cultural and intellectual
level. As Bales points out, Virtually every action that we now think of as a
violation of human rights was once dened as acceptable (157), but the
widespread acceptance of universal human rights has made it easier to mount
effective international campaigns against slavery. He also argues cogently that the
development of the concept of universal human right abuses must be worldwide
as well.
A country-by-country enumeration of slavery in the world is a striking feature
of the book. Bales is characteristically modest about the accuracy of his statistics,
describing them as having been compiled by a vacuum cleaner approach of
sucking up available statistics from various sources and being a great hodge-
podge (102). Nevertheless, his care and diligence in rening the numbers
probably make them the best estimate available, both smaller than some advocates
claim and larger than those produced by national and international bodies that are
reluctant to embarrass inuential partners. His table includes high and low
estimates for each country, of which his 27 million estimate lies in the middle. The
largest number of slaves is in South Asia (20 million in India, three million in
Pakistan). Only a few countries in the West Indies and Central America are
estimated to have few or no slaves. The estimate for the United States is 100,000
to 150,000.
In short, this is a very useful primer on a large and little understood topic. It is
readable enough for the general reader and scholarly enough for classroom use.
432 Human Rights Review, July 2007
Reproducedwith permission of thecopyright owner. Further reproductionprohibited without permission.