Ignorance of slavery allows it to persist

DISPOSABLE PEOPLE: NEW SLAVERY IN THE GLOBAL ECOMOMY By Kevin Bales University of California 298 pp., $27.50

Though legalized slavery is a thing of the past, slavery itself endures and evolves, largely because there's so little awareness that this ancient scourge still lives.

"Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy" should help end that ignorance. Author Kevin Bales provides a gripping account of the major forms slavery takes around the world today, introducing enslaved people, their families, and entire social strata deprived of the most basic rights.

Beyond ignorance, the major reason slavery persists is that new economic conditions create new forms for slavery.

"As jobs for life disappear from the world economy," Bales observes, "so too does slavery for life."

The old slavery lay at the very heart of pre-modern feudalism, which still survives in many places around the world. It was based on legal ownership of slaves who were expensive, scarce, long-term investments generating low profits, usually ethnically or racially different from their masters. In all respects, this slavery reflected the overwhelmingly rural, local, traditional economies of which it was part.

The new slavery is a stark reminder that markets needn't bring forth any other trace of the modern world - not democracy, or human rights, or improved living conditions.

Such slavery is based on control, not ownership. Slaves are cheap, potentially plentiful and readily disposable. They generate very high profits; race and ethnicity are irrelevant.

"Until we really understand [the new slavery]," Bales writes, "until we really know what makes it work, we have little chance of stopping it. And this disease is spreading.... We're facing an epidemic of slavery that is tied through the global economy to our own lives."

Following an introductory over-view, Bales devotes the bulk of his book to separate chapters on child prostitution in urban Thailand, charcoal-making in the Brazilian interior, brickmaking families in Pakistan, 'untouchable' farm families in India, and newly urbanized family slaves in Mauritania. It's a limited, but illuminating sample that deepens our concrete knowledge of slavery in chilling detail.

Thailand and Brazil are the only pure examples of the new slavery, but even in India - where slaves have been in bondage for hundreds of generations - conditions are rapidly changing.

Bales shows how surface variations - in means of control, types of work, rationalizations, etc. - overlie essential structural constants, especially the profit motive of the new global economy and the resulting corruption of government power that enables the violence needed to perpetuate slavery.

Through these examples, Bales presents a remarkably effective short course in the need for flexible approaches tailored to specific conditions, yet guided by broad, universal principles to target the underlying causes.

He concludes with a thoughtful prescription for ending slavery, drawing on local examples of successful activism and programs that help enslaved people gain self-sufficiency. He also notes the hopeful lessons learned from other international campaigns, such as the anti-apartheid movement and the environmental movement.

In one form or another, everything needed to end slavery is already known, already proven. What's been missing is strong public awareness and organized political will.

Vast armies of diplomats, attorneys, and government officials routinely defend the property rights of business interests in the global economy. Properly informed and persistently mobilized, public opinion could issue new marching orders to protect the most vulnerable among us, too.

"Disposable People" is an eloquent plea toward that end. Avoiding easy moralism and sensationalism alike, it discloses the daily soul-destroying brutality of slavery on our planet today.

*Paul Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Long Beach, Calif.

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