Saturday, August 14, 1999

Martin Levin

p. D16.

A new order of slaves

More than 27 million people remain in violent economic bondage.

New Slavery in the Global Economy

By Kevin Bales
University of California Press, 298 pages

Think slavery's a relic of the past? Think again. Kevin Bales of the University of Surrey in England knows pretty much all there is to know about slavery in the contemporary world. In Disposable People he parlays a combination of fact and indignation into a compelling indictment of an aspect of globalism most of us prefer not to think about.

According to Bales, there are currently more than 27 million people enslaved: His case studies include prostitutes in Thailand, bonded farmers in India and charcoal workers in Brazil. Even the First World is not exempt; France still has a form of domestic slavery, as Bales's opening interview with a newly liberated Malian woman shows. Complicit in this should-be scandal are not just corrupt locals but national governments and multinational corporations. Nor does he excuse us, the readers, who often buy, albeit perhaps unknowingly, the products of slave labour, or purchase mutual funds that invest in companies using slaves.

Writing with a passion rare in academic texts, Bales excoriates both the greed and the greedy who profit from slavery. He makes a clear distinction between wage slaves — for instance, workers earning bubkes making Nikes in Asia — and real slaves, "held against their wills for purposes of exploitation."

Finally, Bales insists that the problem of slavery cannot be separated from globalism and devotes a chapter to explaining how individuals can make a difference in the attempt to end it. This is a timely and important exposé. Bales has cast a little light into a very dark place.

Martin Levin is the Books editor of The Globe and Mail.

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Last modified: January 31, 2001
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