Contrary to what we may have learned in grammar school, slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century. Contemporary or modern slavery wears a myriad of faces. Siddharth Kara is a tireless chronicler of the human cost of slavery around the world. He has documented the dark realities of modern slavery in order to reveal the degrading and dehumanizing systems that strip people of their dignity for the sake of profit—and to link the suffering of the enslaved to the day-to-day lives of consumers in the West. In Modern Slavery, Kara draws on his many years of expertise to demonstrate the astonishing scope of slavery and offer a concrete path toward its abolition.
Today we are happy to present an interview that was initially posted on the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs website.
Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.
DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I’m Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Siddharth Kara. Siddharth is the author of a brand-new book called Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective. He is also a lecturer at Harvard University.
Siddharth, great to speak with you again.
SIDDHARTH KARA: Yes, Devin. Very nice to speak to you, too.
DEVIN STEWART: You authored two other books on slavery, one called Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery in 2009 and another called Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia in 2012. [Editor’s note: For more on Sex Trafficking, check out Kara’s 2009 Carnegie Council discussionwith Stewart.]
The new book is called Modern Slavery, and it is incredibly well-researched. I think it took you something like 16 years to put together. What was the motivation behind this new book?
SIDDHARTH KARA: You are quite right. This is my third book on the topic of slavery and human trafficking in general. Really across 16 years I have been doing a considerable amount of field research on all the various manifestations of slavery.
I did focus my first book on the phenomenon of sex trafficking, my second book on the phenomenon of bonded labor in South Asia, and then I felt that I needed a book that really gave a comprehensive overview of everything I have learned, everything I have studied, all the key manifestations of slavery that I have documented around the world, to be sort of a foundational text. For anyone who wants to know what is slavery in the world today, they read this book and hopefully walk away with a good understanding.
DEVIN STEWART: Let’s get to that right away. When you are trying to explain what modern slavery looks like, what do you say? How do you define modern slavery?
SIDDHARTH KARA: I think the simplest way for a person to think about it is that modern slavery involves the practice of essentially exploiting a person like they are property. You use the term “modern” slavery not just because it is happening in the modern world and in a modern context but because slavery is thought about very specifically. It does have a historical definition that involves actually owning people like property, hence the term “chattel slavery,” and exerting power over them as if they are property. You cannot legally own a person anywhere in the world any longer, but people are still treated that way.
I think the simplest way to think about it is where there is exploitation of labor and services in a way that amounts to treating a person like property, that I think you can call modern slavery.
DEVIN STEWART: Do you have a sense that people are aware of this problem?
SIDDHARTH KARA: They are certainly more aware of the issues of slavery and trafficking today than when I took my first research trip in the summer of the year 2000. It was very difficult to find people who knew about the issue, understood it, were researching it, and certainly very few people were really talking about this problem at that time.
Now jump ahead 16, 17 years, human trafficking and slavery are generally in the consciousness of society. There are dozens if not hundreds of new laws that have been passed around the world, hundreds of new non-governmental organizations, movies, documentaries, TV shows, all kinds of things that have happened in the last 16, 17 years.
That said, even though the level of awareness amongst the average person has increased, I find that it is still a very superficial understanding, kind of what you can grasp from headlines or maybe the odd journalistic story. The true understanding of the nuance of slavery, how it happens, and how it touches your life, that kind of awareness is still lacking.
DEVIN STEWART: Let’s get a sense of the number here. I think your estimate is that there are probably 31 million slaves worldwide. Is that correct?
SIDDHARTH KARA: Yes. I believe based on the sampling and modeling I have done that there are around 31 million slaves in the world today. There are some other estimates that range anywhere from 20 to around 45 million. The truth is probably somewhere between 20 and 45 million. It is obviously a difficult thing to quantify. It is not like slaves are just walking around on the streets with signs on their chests declaring that they are slaves. That explains part of the reason why there is a bit of a range of estimates. But yes, I count around 30, 31 million slaves in the world.
DEVIN STEWART: Can you tell us how you came to that number?
SIDDHARTH KARA: I have been doing direct sampling, primary in-the-field sampling of slave estimates since my first research trip in the year 2000. Of course, I have refined that methodology and the definitions and the model I use to extrapolate from a basic sample across the years, and I try to use as conservative assumptions as I can in extrapolating. Clearly you cannot count all of them, so you try to get representative samples from key countries and regions around the world and then build up a model of what you think the estimate is globally, and that is generally how others have produced their estimates. They may have slightly different sampling techniques or slightly different extrapolation assumptions.
DEVIN STEWART: You have great charts and graphs as usual, Siddharth. You are very quantitative and empirical.
What are the worst regions? It looks like South Asia and East Asia are some of the worst. Is that correct?
SIDDHARTH KARA: Yes. I think you could reasonably call South Asia ground zero for modern slavery. That is for a few reasons. Number one, in terms of total numbers, there would be more slaves in South Asia probably than in the rest of the world combined, or at least around half the slaves in the world you could probably find in South Asia.
You can also find just about every type of slavery imaginable in South Asia. Part of that is a function of the immense population, the huge levels of poverty, gender bias, caste bias, etc., that sort of perpetuates systems of oppression including slavery, but part of it is also that the governments of those regions really have not done remotely enough to address the problem, and that is a critique you could lay on much of the rest of the world. But given the magnitude of the problem in South Asia, one would hope that the governments of the region would have really taken the issue more seriously than they have.
DEVIN STEWART: So the same factors are at play in East Asia as well?
SIDDHARTH KARA: Yes, largely the same factors in East Asia, immense levels of poverty, bias against minority ethnic groups and communities. Migration and population displacement are also key factors in South Asia and Southeast Asia. You have seen this most sharply with the Rohingya crisis most recently in the news now with hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing what they allege to be state-sanctioned oppression and violence, if not extermination.
Within days—one of the things I say when I give lectures to my classes—the first responders to any crisis or catastrophe that involves population displacement are typically human traffickers. International aid and all of that comes a little bit later. You saw that in the refugee camps in Bangladesh with children, men, and women being trafficked into prostitution and forced labor. So yes, similar trends in East Asia as in South Asia, just fewer numbers of people in total.
DEVIN STEWART: Your book looks at various categories of slavery and trafficking. There is sex trafficking, labor, and organ trafficking as well, which sounds pretty gruesome. Do you want to talk about those various categories and how they differ?
SIDDHARTH KARA: Yes. As I mentioned at the outset, I wanted this book to really be sort of a foundational text on the key manifestations of slavery that you can find in the world today, so I go chapter by chapter into case study examples of those key manifestations, which include sex trafficking, labor trafficking, organ trafficking, slavery as it is involved in global supply chains, and some other examples as well.
Sex and labor trafficking, I guess the simplest way to think about it is the trafficking of a person for the purpose of either forced prostitution, which we call sex trafficking, or forced labor, which we call labor trafficking.
Organ trafficking, you can also traffic in people for the purpose of coercively, fraudulently, or violently harvesting organs to be used either in medical research or for transplants. In the chapter on organ trafficking in my book, I describe organ trafficking as I researched it in South Asia as well as here in the United States across the U.S.-Mexico border used in transplants. Probably second to sex trafficking it is the most profitable form of slavery and trafficking you can find in the world today, but also the least understood, because as I experienced firsthand, it is exceedingly difficult to research organ trafficking.
Read the complete interview and listen to the podcast at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs website.