________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 4 . . . . October 10, 2008


Slavery Today. (Groundwood Guides).

Kevin Bales & Becky Cornell.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008.
141 pp., pbk. & hc., $11.00 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-773-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-772-2 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Slave labor.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Greg Bak.

**** /4


All of us support and profit from slavery in some way, even if we don’t mean to or don’t realize it. The phenomenon of globalization means that the goods we buy are increasingly assembled in different parts of the world, using components from all over the world … Some of the steel in your car may have been made using pig iron or charcoal that was produced by slaves in Brazil. Similarly, a handful of the sugar in the jar at home may have come from sugar cane harvested by slaves in the Dominican Republic. Slavery infiltrates our lives through increasingly global markets.

Slavery surrounds us. It is a twenty-first century problem.

Kevin Bales and Becky Cornell lay out the facts with verve and clarity: field hands, garment workers, domestic servants and prostitutes, prostitutes, prostitutes. Slaves. Today. 

   But not all of them, and not everywhere. Modern slavery is pernicious because it is (mostly) underground, and because it often takes root where modern governance has broken down: in war zones, in kleptocracies and amidst the most grinding poverty imaginable. It is not the slavery of our imagination, the slavery of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when slaves were owned under the laws of nations, when the purchase of a slave was a major investment, and when slavery was underwritten by racism. Today, no nation allows slavery by law, slaves are cheaper than they ever have been, and slaves and slaveholders are likely to be of the same ethnicity and nationality.

   The criminal nature of modern slavery means that slavery is a relatively low-level problem even in those places where it flourishes. This is why it is impossible to end slavery through consumer boycotts. Admitting that “it is repulsive to think about eating or wearing something made by slaves,” Bales and Cornell note that the boycott of a class of products – for example, cotton from Africa or Asia, or cocoa from Ivory Coast – hurts the majority of legitimate farmers more than the tiny minority of slaveholders. The boycott will devastate the free farmers whose livelihood depends upon these commodities, while the small number of slaveholders simply pocket their profits and turn to other activities.

   Having denied their readers the opportunity to fight slavery through consumer choice, Bales and Cornell suggest that westerners can best help out by supporting NGOs such as Free the Slaves (Kevin Bales, President) and by lobbying their governments. This message, emphasizing the fight against slavery already is underway, contributes to the positive tone of the book, but it can make slavery seem too big, too global, to be fought at the local level. This is unfortunate, particularly in a book that is sure to excite the interest of teen readers who cannot vote and who may not have as much money as the authors (who suggest that $150 is “the price of a nice lunch”) seem to think. What is missing from this book is an agenda that could engage anyone and everyone: say, consciousness raising through reading, thinking and talking about modern slavery.

   But that is all that is missing. This book is fantastic, with “we shall overcome” personal stories spicing a blend of history, policy analysis and statistics. Those familiar with Bales’ writing on the modern slave trade, including the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Disposable People, will not be disappointed here. Combining simple language, clear prose, logical argument and inspiring personal narratives to make a passionate appeal to our better natures, Slavery Today is a gripping read even when it describes the most inhumane actions imaginable.

Highly Recommended.

Greg Bak is a an archivist with Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, ON..

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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