Friday, 11 April 2008

Not for Sale

I just read one of those horrible books that everyone should read. It’s called Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade and How We Can Fight It and it’s written by David Batstone, former editor of Sojourners magazine and long-time social activist.

Batstone reports that there are somewhere around 27 million slaves in the world today, even though slavery is not lawful anywhere in the world. This book describes how it happens. Beginning with his own discovery that his favourite Indian restaurant in San Francisco was staffed by slaves, he takes us on a tour of slavery around the world. He tells us about:

  • Young girls from poor rural communities recruited to work as waitresses or domestics in the city, only to find themselves forced to work as prostitutes
  • Family groups in South Asia imprisoned on the premises of brickworks or rice mills, forced to work long hours to pay off fictitious debts and hunted down if they try to escape
  • Children abducted to serve as soldiers and “wives” in the Lord’s Revolutionary Army in Uganda
  • Destitute women from the former Soviet republics trafficked into western Europe as sex slaves
  • Homeless children forced into brothels in downtown Lima
  • Immigrants in the USA forced to work as factory workers, prostitutes and domestic slaves.

It’s not a book of dry statistics – it intertwines brief “big picture” descriptions of various aspects of slavery with stories of real people who have been enslaved. It’s not pretty reading – the tales deception, abduction, assault, rape and economic exploitation are made more sickening by the corruption of police forces and judiciaries around the world.

Nor can people in the developed world rest easy, as Batstone’s own experience with his favourite restaurant shows. Some of the most sickening stories are about people you would expect to trust, like the American pastor who recruited Zambian children to tour the US as part of a children’s choir to help raise funds to build schools in Zambia. You can see what’s coming – the children’s parents were promised that they would be provided with education while in the US, then returned in 6 months after which the funds they helped raise would be used to build schools in their communities. In reality they were kept in the US indefinitely, forced to sing or labour for the pastor for long hours, provided with no education, and threatened with violence and imprisonment if they told anyone what was happening. Lots of money was raised, but none of it went to build schools for Zambian children!

Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. The stories of slavery are balanced with stories of abolitionists – organisations working to rescue and support former slaves and to prevent slavery. This is a story of individuals and small organisations that do incredible work with limited resources. The Italian priest who begins with running a shelter for women escaping sex slavery, and ends up running publicity campaigns in Moldova warning young women not to accept offers of waitressing work in Italy. The woman in Lima who runs a AIDS prevention service in Lima and offers a young boy the option of sleeping the night in her office, only to find herself unable to open the front door of the office later that night because the place is packed solid with hundreds of homeless children.

Perhaps my favourite is the Cameroon immigrant to the US who meets a teenage Cameroon girl who has just escaped from domestic slavery, and persuades her to tell him about other girls she knows in the same position. He then rings their captors’ homes during the day in the hopes of finding them home alone and helps them to escape. In the process, the first girl he rescues turns out to be the daughter of his first cousin!

All this talk of America and Europe made me wonder what the story is in Australia. A 2004 Australian Government briefing note says:

“The number of people trafficked into Australia is unknown. A recent parliamentary inquiry into sexual servitude in Australia was given varying estimates of the number of trafficked women, ranging from 300 to 1000 each year. The inquiry found that most of the women trafficked into Australia are recruited from South East Asia and China for the sex industry. According to the inquiry report, traffickers facilitate the women's entry to Australia by a range of fraudulent means, including providing visas (usually student or holiday visas), false passports and funds. The women are then sent to brothels around the country where their movements are usually restricted. It is not unknown for women to be forced to repay debts of up to $40 000.”


These numbers are small compared to the staggering numbers for the US and Europe, never mind South-East Asia. However, if Australia is like the US this won’t be the whole story – homeless children forced into the sex industry, illegal immigrants enslaved in sweatshops or imprisoned as domestic servants: it seems unlikely that we would be exempt from these outrages when they happen across the world.

Australia has recently followed the US lead and moved from treating freed slaves as illegal immigrants, providing them with bridging visas and protection if they agree to cooperate with police. However, it makes you wonder about the destination of the people smuggled in on boats via Indonesia. Where do those who are not intercepted and detained end up? Are we really detaining the criminals, or punishing the victims?

Anyway, you should read this book. We should all do our bit to stop the trade in people.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your post. Just wanted to note that the figure of 27 million people in slavery comes from my own research and my book Disposable People, a book that sets out the shape of the problem of slavery around the world. For more information about modern slavery please visit:

And let me note that I will be in Australia in August and speaking in Canberra and Sydney.

All best,
Kevin Bales