"Modern Slavery" with Siddharth Kara

Jan 30, 2018

In his third book on slavery, which took 16 years of research, Siddharth Kara calculates that there are roughly 31 million slaves worldwide, at least half of them in South Asia. We need to apply much more resources and compassion to end "this horrible indignity."

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 discussion with 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.

DEVIN STEWART: Over these 16 years, where did your projects take you? Can you describe some of the landscapes and the settings that you have seen? There is a particularly colorful and evocative chapter on Nigeria. Can you give us a sense of the various places you researched?

SIDDHARTH KARA: The research that went into this book spans more than 50 countries across those 16 years, several of which I went to more than once. Every region in the world, every continent save Antarctica.

One of the places I went, I spent about a month in Nigeria doing research on sex trafficking, and that is described in Chapter Two of the book. It is, as I write, one of the most daunting, challenging, bleak, yet inspiring and extraordinary places I have been. Every imaginable reality of human trafficking finds its almost most extreme expression in Nigeria: the levels of poverty; the types of control; the cultural use of religious beliefs, in this case Juju rituals, to exert control over people; the extremes the trafficking victims are exposed to and put themselves through. I am still coming to terms with my time in Nigeria, still trying to understand it and process the experiences I had, the people I met, the stories they told me, the kinds of encounters I had where I just was not sure anymore what the rules of the world were.

Then at the end of that chapter I spend a couple of pages describing possibly one of the most poignant and painful experiences I had, which involved a journey of walking through some of the old slave-trading outposts in the region and how it was only at that point—this was 10 years into my research when I took that journey and walked that walk of those slaves from centuries ago—that I really felt I finally understood what slavery meant.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow. Any surprises during your journeys?

SIDDHARTH KARA: I think the most extraordinary moments or surprises for me involved my encounters with individuals who had been chewed up by the darkest side of humanity, the greed, the oppression, the inhuman way we can treat other people. Yet they came through those experiences without bitterness, without anger, without a sense of vengefulness, and a strength and grit and even nobility in their desire to simply find a way to lead a dignified life.

I guess it shouldn't have surprised me or it should have stopped surprising me at some point, but it never ceased to surprise me year after year that I did this research, the extraordinary grace and strength of the many slaves I met, men, women, and children as well, who had been through the worst of humanity and still held their heads up and stood on their own two feet and without bitterness wanted to simply find a way and find the support they needed to carry on with whatever years they had left in dignity.

DEVIN STEWART: There is a reason why dignity is such a sacred idea in the human rights community. That does make a lot of sense.

So you are going out and interviewing these victims of the slave trade. Can you give us a sense of your methods? You walk into Nigeria and you say, "Where are the slaves?" I am sure it is probably difficult to go find them. How do you go investigate that?

SIDDHARTH KARA: It is exceedingly difficult to research slavery in the world today. It can be quite risky, quite dangerous, not just for me but even more so for the individuals I am trying to meet and document. Should a slave be seen talking to someone they should not be talking to, particularly someone who does not belong, like me—I can quite certainly find a way out of a difficult situation and I have done so in the past, but they would be left behind with no place to go, and the penalty and consequences could be quite serious if not fatal.

The guiding principles of my research were, above all, make no choice or take no action that introduces any level of unreasonable risk for potential harm or consequence to a slave, and the least important aspect of my research is my research. It wasn't about me trying to get information by hook or crook, but simply putting myself in a position to hopefully receive in a passive way the stories, the information, the data that a person might be able to relay to me safely and securely.

Across the years, of course, my technique improved and evolved, and my questionnaire improved and evolved, and I give an example of one in the appendix of the book so people have a sense of the kinds of questions I ask. Of course, I didn't just have a printout that I went through, ticking off questions, but I just knew in my mind what I wanted to learn and would engage in semi-structured conversations in which I would just talk and listen and get as much information as I could.

If I got enough information that my checklist was completed, that counted as a case documented. I think I say somewhere in the book that for every one complete case I documented there were probably five to ten incomplete encounters. The book represents around 5,300 documented cases, so you can imagine, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 encounters that were not complete for any number of reasons.

The last thing I will say is the most important thing I learned, the most powerful thing I learned in this process of trying to meet slaves and document their cases is the power of listening. There are few things more painful than screaming out in agony and feeling that no one is listening, so sometimes just being there and listening—it may have nothing to do with actually trying to document a case, but just listening to someone's story, to their frustrations, to their agony, was the most important thing I could do.

DEVIN STEWART: You have a great chapter on the double-edged sword of technology. You talk about websites as vehicles for recruiting and social media, but you also talk about technology furthering and advancing monitoring and exposing cases. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you discovered about technology's role in slavery?

SIDDHARTH KARA: Absolutely. Technology was used first by traffickers to advance the process of human trafficking, whether it was job recruitment sites for labor traffickers or social media, online dating sites used by sex traffickers, they were using technology first, and of course online classifieds to sell women and children for sex.

But the forces allied against human traffickers have been using technology as well to fight back, and there are a lot of tools being developed, and I think this is one of the real new frontiers where there can be a lot of work done. One of the things I call for in my book is the creation of a technology trust: Let's get some of the brightest minds of the tech sector sitting down together and talking about ways they can use their companies, their platforms, their tools, and their tech to assist in the fight against human trafficking.

Some of that has started. Microsoft has developed a facial recognition tool that law enforcement uses to help track sex trafficking victims across this country. Google has developed tools and algorithms that will actually put up a warning to someone who is doing searches that might mean they are looking to purchase a woman or child. There are new frontiers involving blockchain applications that could be used to create virtual identity documents for migrants or people who are fleeing from war zones who do not have passports with them, but you could use blockchain, for example, to give them a verifiable identity that could be used to check as they cross from border to border or country to country, or it could be used to track and trace people or goods being trafficked around the world.

So there is a lot of new extraordinary potential involving the use of technology to combat against slavery in the world today.

DEVIN STEWART: A couple more questions, Siddharth. You talk about something in your book you call the "slavery global supply chain." What does that look like? I am sure it is very complicated. Also, why is Libya so much in the news these days as a part of that supply chain?

SIDDHARTH KARA: When I talk about supply chain in my book—and I have a chapter on it where I use the case study of seafood in Thailand—what I mean is how slavery, how labor can be involved in the production of goods that end up being exported to the West and purchased by you and me every day, whether it is the clothes we wear, the foods we eat, the smartphone in our hand. This is what I mean when I say people may not necessarily realize the extent to which slavery really touches their lives.

This is another new frontier in the slavery field, actually trying to understand and quantify the extent to which so many of the things we buy every day could be tainted by severe labor exploitation, slavery, and child labor, including the very severe and searing example of out-and-out chattel slavery in the Thai seafood sector that I describe in the book where you have migrants trafficked into seaports, fishing ports in Thailand, sold off to captains for $600 or $700, forced to work months at sea without pay, sometimes just shot and thrown overboard. They catch the fish we eat.

DEVIN STEWART: They are from Cambodia and Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia?

SIDDHARTH KARA: That's right, migrants from across the Mekong subregion trafficked into Thailand and then sold off onto these ships. The stories I heard were utterly horrific, and this is seafood that we eat every day, whether it is shrimp, tuna—and by the way, there is something called "trash fish" that they catch that also ends up in pet food and animal feed. So your steak could be tainted, your chicken dinner could be tainted, and your dog's food could be tainted by this slavery.

You mentioned Libya. Libya is really an extraordinarily disheartening manifestation of—one of the key themes of my book is where you have poverty, population displacement, distress migration relating to catastrophe, mass numbers of people trying to leave one horrible place to get to some sort of stability and security, traffickers, smugglers, they are the first ones on the scene, and you see this in Libya now with migrants coming up from West Africa up to the North African coast, trying to cross the Mediterranean to get up to Europe. They are getting bottlenecked in these slave auction markets.

Libya is of course a largely lawless place right now, so organized crime groups, trafficking groups, smuggling groups all operate there largely with impunity, and we have seen the footage on CNN, extraordinary visual images of these migrants, these victims, being auctioned off as slaves, almost like we had dialed back three centuries. I think it should give us all great pause that this is happening in our world today.

DEVIN STEWART: They are coming from south of Libya, including Nigeria. What other countries are they coming from?

SIDDHARTH KARA: They are coming from across West Africa—Nigeria, Ghana, you can just go from east to west across the West African coast. They are coming from there. They are coming from even in some cases further south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), but they are all fleeing violence, poverty, oppression, lack of opportunity, are desperate to get north, desperate to get into Europe where they are hopeful they can find a more secure and stable life.

DEVIN STEWART: You said this assessment is going back several years. Things are getting worse in places like Libya.

SIDDHARTH KARA: Slavery functions where there is corruption, lawlessness, and a lack of respect for human decency and dignity. You have that horrific recipe in Libya right now without question, and you have it in many parts of the world as well, but right now in really extreme focus in Libya to the tune of old-world slave auction markets happening, which in a way is almost like a horrible nightmare except for the fact that it is real.

DEVIN STEWART: You have a chapter talking about the framework for dealing with this and solving slavery in the long run. Can you describe the methods to tackle this problem, and are there any reasons for hope in your mind?

SIDDHARTH KARA: I think there are. I think we have to be, must be, and should be hopeful. In the last chapter of my book I do discuss the 20 forces that I think are promoting slavery around the world today, and then I outline 10 initiatives, a mix of initiatives, some policy, some legal, some tactical, that I think will address those 20 forces.

I mentioned one, the technology trust. Another one is, of course, just more resources. I call for a mandatory fund to be created, contributions out of each country's gross domestic product (GDP) to tackle slavery. You simply cannot eradicate this problem with the level of resources that are being committed to it at this point in time. And certain policy and legal recommendations I make.

I was just giving a lecture the other day, and I made this point: I think actually to solve slavery we have to stop, take a step back, and realize that this issue persists and so many human rights tragedies and violations persist in the world fundamentally due to a lack of compassion. I think if we saw those slaves in Libya as our brothers and our sisters, and we saw those Rohingya slaves being trafficked off from the refugee camps as our children, our boys and girls and our sisters and brothers, if we saw them as linked to us just as the output of their slavery is linked to us, I think all of the things that need to be done to eradicate slavery once and for all would be done, whether it is the tactics I outline or some other set of tactics.

I think that is really the gap, the compassion deficiency. I worry about the world because I feel like we are moving in a direction of having less and less compassion for each other as opposed to more and more. Hopefully I am wrong about that.

But I think we can be hopeful. I think we can finish the work of eradicating slavery from the world today. We certainly have more awareness, more knowledge than we did years ago, which is so crucial and so important, far more people working on this issue than there were years ago, and I think those are very positive developments that certainly give me hope that we can see the end to this horrible indignity.

DEVIN STEWART: Siddharth Kara is author of Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective. Siddharth, great to speak with you again today, and good luck with your new book.

SIDDHARTH KARA: Thanks so much, Devin.

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