Book Review

Book Review: Modern Slavery: The Secret World of 27 Million People

Modern Slavery by Kevin Bales is a short and succinct book about the current situation of slavery around the world. Modern slavery is, perhaps, the most complex social phenomenon of our times (although some would argue that there are other claimants to this title). It thrives despite being banned internationally. This book outlines the history of slavery, causes of modern-day slavery, types of slavery, sufferings of slaves and lastly, it offers possible solutions to end this problem.

Slavery, of course, is not a recent development. It has existed from 7000 BC and Egyptians made the earliest records of it.  But it wasn’t limited to Egypt; it was prevalent in Babylon too. The Code of Hammurabi tells us how the slave system worked. Slavery continued in its legalised form through centuries culminating in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which was abolished by the British in 1800s. The part about Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Chapter 1 was brief, so if you are interested you might want to take a MOOC class (History of Slave South-UPenn) or read a book (American Slavery: A Very Short Introduction) on it. In Chapter 2, the author did a decent job in comparing historical slavery with modern slavery. The most important point is that the price of slaves in modern world is much lower than historical rates because higher the supply, lower the price. I’m not convinced that oversupply is the main reason for lower rates. If the market is glutted with slaves, why is slave trade increasing? Causes are also listed in Chapter 2. Among the causes listed for slave trade, I agree with only two of them: poverty and endemic gender bias. At one point, he asserts that lack of labour regulation has made it easier for traffickers to bring in slaves from other countries. That is hardly true. With strict immigration control laws, countries have restricted free movement of labour across borders. He also discusses the type of slavery in each country. Surprisingly, Japan ranks highest in the list of destinations in Asia. India, too ,occupies an exalted position, as far as number of slaves are concerned. Out of the 27 million, there are 10 million slaves in India. That’s a whopping 37%. Chapter 7 on health risks of slaves was depressing, so read it only if you want to plumb the depths of human cruelty. Here’s an excerpt:

Ravi (see figure 14), another child who was enslaved in a carpet loom in India, recounts that when his fingers bled, the slaveholder’s wife “would take a little bit of kerosene and put it in my wound and strike a match to it.” He added: “The wound would not heal, and I was made to go back and resume weaving again … With the blood running down my finger I was made to weave.

The last chapter is on solutions, which was the part I was most interested in. One of his possible solutions included a part where United Nations plays a major role. I seriously doubt whether UN, a bureaucratic behemoth, would be able to do anything to alleviate this situation. Another solution was to raise awareness about modern slavery. He says that most people think slavery is still a thing of the past. Human ignorance has never failed to amaze me.

As long as there is a demand for slaves in global markets, there will be people greedy enough to supply them. The pertinent question here is: how do you quell the demand?

The best thing about this book is that the author uses a lot of graphs and data to elucidate his point. The analyst part of me was delighted. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about this ghastly business. 3.5 stars.


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