Book Review: Disposable People

I am almost a hundred per cent certain that I have read this book before. Not only is the information and even the layout familiar to me, but there are so few books like it, out there. Which is a shame. See, the story goes like this:

It was the beginning of the pandemic stay-at-home order and I was already tiring of social media. One of the main reasons for this was watching as a few of my friends seemed to be going up in flames of their own ire and bile, hell-bent on destruction for a solitary truth that I didn’t also see as our salvation. I couldn’t take it, so I unfollowed those friends, but not before one of them said something that got me thinking beyond their usual tirade (which was growing increasingly bizarre and twisted) and about what social issues make me passionate. This was months ago, before the urgent siren song of Black Lives Matter grew to fever pitch, and I knew that yes, there have always been a few things that bugged me in a way that made we want to do something about them. One of these things is human trafficking.

In the past, I have gone so far as to volunteer and travel halfway around the world for the sake of helping a few victims, to two different countries. I have marched. I have donated. I have bought items and read books. I even wrote an article that was used on a website (and was supposed to be in a magazine, but they bought it and never published it). But the twirly-swirly life of the modern, middle class American woman-with-family has a way of stripping one of one’s passions and even one’s will to do anything that isn’t related to excelling at that particular day. What had I done recently? What could I do? And like so many people have been revealing about themselves on the internet, lately, I turned to books as a first step (back).

I began with my TBR and the nonfiction and philosophy lists, but found that they came up short on this particular topic. So I did a little more searching and decided to begin with two books: one about trafficking acound the globe and the other about trafficking at home, in the US. To be frank, the list of well-rated books on this topic was s-lim pickin’s. When I ordered a gently used copy of Disposable People by Kevin Bales, I did not realize it was a book I had already read nor that it was twenty years old, sixteen years since the revision. (There is another version which was updated in 2012.) Even so, it remains a titan in the world of slave trafficking information, and it is an excellent book for several reasons. I am glad that I read it (again).

Kevin Bales is like the authority on trafficking, what he would call slavery, especially when it comes to books. He seems to come out with a book every few years, which is no small feat since he has to do a majority of the leg-work himself since reporting and studies can be sparse and unreliable. His other books which have made it onto my TBR are Blood and Earth (2016) and The Slave Next Door (2010; which I believe I might have read, as well). His other books include Ending Slavery (2006) and some collaborations with others including Modern Slavery, To Plead Our Own Cause (stories told in the words of the slaves, themselves), and Slavery Today. Those all seem like excellent places to start educating oneself about the reality of modern slavery throughout the world. His books consistently garner great reviews, both critical and pedestrian.

Disposable People was Bales’ first comprehensive book about modern slavery, maybe the first anywhere. It focuses on educating the public, one reader at a time, about what modern slavery is, how it is different from “old” or even ancient slavery, and how diverse and widespread it is. He makes examples of slave systems in a half-dozen countries, focusing on one scenario from each place that will teach us something about modern slavery and give us a handle. The sections of the book break down into an introduction, followed by sex trafficking in Thailand, leftover old slavery in Mauritania, labor camps in Brazil, debt bondage in Pakistan, and bonded labor in India (basically). Most of these situations include child labor. His conclusion is a chapter titled “What Can Be Done?” He uses stories and lots of undercover research to let us in on a big, dirty secret: slavery still exists today and in many places is booming. The new slavery is insidious, in that it does not look to operate legally, but still uses violence to hold people against their will and without basic freedoms in order to get the most capital gain it can out of them in a relatively short time, and then discard them. It relies on government and police corruption and our desire not to see that our own purchasing and investing habits contribute to others’ enslavement in a truly global economy. Not that he’s preaching or shaming: Bales is more of an informed guide and a fellow seeker of the truth. He shares some facts and figures, but he specializes in this book with plopping the reader down right in the middle of the slaves’ quarters and walking them through a day in the life, then weaving it all together to draw some comprehensive conclusions. It is rare that a nonfiction book is written fluidly enough to hold the reader’s attention, but I didn’t feel any need to set the book down, at any point. True, it’s something that really interests me, but it is also written well, though not at all flowery.

Since the book is twenty years old, there are some things that I am sure have changed (even one major thing about India’s relationship with NGOs that even I noticed), involving the particulars of this book. I am going to keep reading and follow that up with some internet research, especially on some of the organizations that he mentioned. Even so, the most up-to-date version of this book is still a great place to begin exposing oneself to the reality of worldwide modern slavery. While situations may have changed in any one of the countries he exposes, the awareness is still there and the understanding of what slavery looks like now as opposed to a couple hundred years ago or a couple thousand. It also offers some ways to move forward, throwing your weight into the arena on behalf of the enslaved. Bales does make some basic assumptions, but they are really basic, like “slavery should end and most people want it to end” or “everyone should be free and all people are created equal.” In a way, his voice is dispassionate, but not in a bad way. He’s presenting facts and anecdotes, but you are also sure that he cares about these people and about you.

However, because of it being relatively outdated, I decided to do a little more searching and moving of some more titles over to the TBR, including Bales’ most recent book. I will keep you updated, as always, as I read. I also decided to extend my reading into a series on social passion, that I have woven into my usual TBR. The topics that I plan to cover more in depth include slavery, racism, native peoples, abortion, and adoption, which are all topics that make me passionate and/or are specifically relevant to this time and place. It might get a little uncomfortable up in here, but I will concentrate on reviewing the books rather than venting my opinions.



(I underlined like half the book, but here are a few choice quotes.)

“…the law can do little against the combined strength of a sexist culture, rationalizing religion, amoral exploitive economy, and corrupt government” (p78).

“The idea of bearing total responsibility for oneself and one’s family, which total freedom would require, can be frightening. Freedom of movement does not guarantee food to eat or work to do” (p108).

“The media, especially the Western media, are enormously powerful in confronting slavery, but their impact tends to be short-lived” (p147).

“It is a sad commentary on Pakistani society that its almost complete segregation of men and women tends to place women in one of two categories. There are the women a man respects and protects, normally his family members; and there are all other women, whom many men are willing to violate if given the chance” (p160).

“The tale, like so many stories …. is a twisted one, full of characters who change from good guys to bad guys depending on who’s telling it” (p186).

“Here we are presented with one of the fundamental dilemmas of slavery: which is preferable, freedom with starvation or bondage with food?” (p194).

“…in India interest rates can be as high as 60 percent; but the basic arrangement is that all the worker’s labor equals the interest and the principal must be paid in cash” (p203).

“Without oversight the opportunities for cheating and graft were plentiful” (p228).

“We couldn’t be more wrong if we believed that because the Black Death ended in the Middle Ages, we don’t have to worry about epidemics anymore. In fact, new diseases are evolving all the time; slavery is also evolving and changing, erupting wherever the conditions are right” (p233).

“In the ballooning populations, rapid economic change is bringing some people into the modern world of good medicine and technology, ‘Western’ lifestyles, and a new sense of self and achievement. Other people are being consumed” (p234).

“The best contraceptives in the world—education and social protection against poverty in old age and illness…” (p234).

“There are already pilot programs showing the effectiveness of targeting profits” (p240).

“The crucial question is: Which is stronger, the corruption or the bonds of social consent?” (p245).

“When law enforcement—and the violent potential of gun and jail behind the law—is selective and profit-seeking, the law has effectively ceased to exist” (p245).

“Governments and businesses are more likely to suffer international penalties today for counterfeiting a Britney Spears CD than for using slave labor” (p249).

“Slavery will never be stopped if freed slaves can be easily replaced with new slaves” (p250).

“Some of the well-known writers of this century, such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, have explored how the trauma of slavery is passed down even through subsequent free generations” (p253).

“…Rehabilitation means more than just freedom plus a pair of goats” (p255).

“…minds must become free as well as bodies…” (p255).

“If we can learn anything from the lives of freed slaves, it is that liberation is a process, not an event” (p256).

“They are trapped by public ignorance: most people believe that slavery ended in the nineteenth century” (p259).

“They fought to stop legal slavery, and they won that fight. We must fight to stop illegal slavery” (p260).

“Otherwise, what we like to call the ‘free world’ will continue to feed on slavery” (p261).

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