Disposable People: A Review
By Baruti KMT
Sunday, 31 December 2006 - 12:00 PM

Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Paperback), by Kevin Bales, University of California Press, 1999, 298pp.

Disposable People Disposable People, by Kevin Bales, presents in disturbing and often uncomfortable detail what he labels as "new slavery" within the global framework of capitalism. Having traveled to Thailand, Mauritania, Brazil, Pakistan and India Bales illustrates for readers the dire conditions in which his respondents live and toil day after day. When discussing the new slavery, Bales points to four elements that allow for its persistence: Slaves are cheap and disposable; Control continues without legal ownership; Slavery is hidden behind contracts; Slavery flourishes in communities under stress. According to Bales, with these conditions in place, a way of life for 27 million people (conservative by his estimates) around the world is strengthened.

Well organized and logical in its approach, Bales begins with the issue of prostitution slavery in Thailand brothels and ends the book with a discussion of what can be done to eliminate slavery from the planet. By opening the discussion with prostitution-slavery, Bales not only puts the issue in the reader's face, he shows that Siri, a fifteen year-old enslaved prostitute, could be either a neighbor's child or worse yet one of our own. In using this approach, he grabs the reader's attention and holds it as he guides them around the globe for an unsettling understanding of the social conditions in these five countries; conditions which promote the entrenchment of such a heinous institution. Making several references to the African slave trade in the United States and Caribbean, Bales illustrates how new slavery is not only brutal in its enforcement, it is often accepted among tenets of religious and social norms in some countries and surreptitiously hidden behind dubious employment contracts in others. Being, more often than not, overlooked by investors engaged in what he calls "arms length capitalism" many corporations feign shock and ignorance when made aware of their role in creating and sustaining such conditions.

Having gained access to countries, sometimes under a guise other than social researcher, Bales gathers important interviews, which provide considerable data, which support his thesis, that today's "slavery focuses on weakness, gullibility and depression" as a mainstay in societies where it is present. Not only is his work timely, it is also path breaking provided his admonitions of "don't put this book on the shelf" and "ask hard questions" of charities, politicians and pension fund personnel are heeded. Not unlike efforts, which ended South African Apartheid, Bales' suggestions are a road map that readers can employ to bring the situation from the back burner to the front in seeking to make slavery unprofitable to corporations who are complicit in its existence. While some corporations and business owners turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to such atrocities in the name of profits, by pressuring multinational corporations the cycle of slavery will see its demise.

Disposable People is a good, albeit extremely disconcerting, read that explores the reality of slavery and the story behind the story as it is tied to an ever-expanding global framework of capitalism. Not only is it informative for the academic, it is also approachable by the non-academic alike. Given so, it will not only cause considerable discussion within academia, it will enlighten lay readers as to realities faced by millions of people around the globe.

Needless to say, while reading Disposable People, I found myself cringing, aching and even mentally placing myself into the conditions faced by Bales' respondents. Doing so, my mind periodically wandered to the quest for reparations by some African American scholars, lawyers and concerned parties in the United States. And a question nagged me, given the seemingly entrenched nature of Bales' "new slavery" as it is tied to global capitalist expansion and disenfranchisement, are proponents for economic reparations the equivalent of Albert Camus' Sisyphus? I mean, from a legal perspective, if efforts in the direction of an economic solution are realized, what does such a decision hold for the conservative estimate of 27 million slaves around the globe?

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