Free the Slaves co-founder highlights opening SoJust Leadership Series event

About 27 million people are in slavery in the world today and some 17,000 slaves enter the United States each year, anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales told Brandesians attending the inaugural program of the Social Justice Leadership Series on Sept. 2.

Bales, who is president of Free the Slaves, said most of the slaves being brought into this country are forced into prostitution. Other leading uses of slaves are as agricultural workers and domestic servants. He said the U.S. government does little to eliminate this involuntary servitude.

Bales quantified modern slavery in ways that were both sobering and encouraging to those seeking abolition.

For example, he said that the 27 million currently in slavery is double the number trafficked out of Africa in the 350-year history of the Atlantic slave trade. But, at the same time, the percentage of humanity in slavery and the percentage of production generated annually by slave labor – estimated at $50 billion a year – both are much smaller than in the past.

The Social Justice Leadership Series aims to bring to campus inspiring speakers whose work lives are driven by a commitment to social justice and human rights in the United States and around the world. It is a joint venture of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism and the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life.

Bales said the collapse in the price of human labor in modern times is particularly distressing. He noted that a slave purchased in the United States in the 1860s cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s dollars, while the price of such slaves in much of the world now is around $90.

Bales said anti-slavery forces need to make the public more aware of products that are made in whole or in part by slave labor. He also cited the need to get governments to honor their commitments to anti-slavery laws and provide resources necessary to recognize and prevent slavery.

Free the Slave, the organization Bales heads, is the U.S. sister organization of Anti-Slavery International, the world's oldest human rights organization. He pointed out that it was started by 12 people -- none of them political or economic leaders – and that their accomplishments were so remarkable that Alexis de Tocqueville said they were “without precedent in human history.”

Upcoming programs in the SoJust series include a talk by Iraqi journalist Haider Hamza on Oct. 20 and a screening of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a film on the Liberian civil war, on Oct. 21.

Late in the fall semester, the series will present the inaugural Distinguished Lecture in International Justice and Human Rights by Hassan Jallow, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

And in the spring the series will present a talk by Gloria White-Hammond, a founder of the faith-inspired, multiracial, collective of women known as My Sister’s Keeper that provides humanitarian assistance to communities of women globally, with a focus on Sudan.

Article based on notes by Dara E. Yaffe.

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage