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Report Estimates 30 Million People In Slavery Worldwide


Tomorrow the movie "12 Years A Slave" is set to open, based on the true story of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1840s America. But the idea of kidnapping, selling, or even trading on people's debts against their will is alive and well beyond the multiplex. Some 29.8 million people are caught in some type of slavery, according to the newly released Global Slavery Index. That figure includes women sold into prostitution, children forced to beg and girls bought by wealthy families to be their indentured servants.

We turn now to Kevin Bales. He's lead author of the study and professor at the University of Hull. And, Kevin Bales, to start, help us understand how modern slavery is defined these days by other, you know, NGOs and nonprofits, and how you approached it for this report.

KEVIN BALES: Certainly, the way we look at this is to examine the essential relationship between a slave and a slaveholder. In other words, we're trying to define it according to the lived experience of people in slavery, as opposed to external motions of its legality. And that means that we're looking for a person who is completely controlled by another person.

Violence is being used to maintain that control. And, you know, the rule of thumb is that the person simply cannot walk away, even into a worse situation. It's slavery, pure and simple.

CORNISH: Now, you talk about which countries are having a bigger problem with this?

BALES: The country that turns out number one, in terms of the proportion of the population of that country in slavery, is Mauritania in northwest Africa. And, you know, this is a country with a long tradition of participation in slave trade that dates back actually hundreds of years. It's a country that's very a sharply divided by different ethnic groups. And there's a dominant ethnic group which tends to be the one that has enforced hereditary forms of enslavement on the ethnic groups that they dominate.

But in terms of the countries that have the most raw numbers of people in slavery, India tops the list. So, out of the 29.8 million people in the world in slavery, we're estimating about 14 million of those live in India. Now, of course, India has more than one billion people in its populations, so a smaller fraction of the national population of India but a very large raw number of people in slavery.

CORNISH: Now, are there certain industries that you found also where slavery is more common?

BALES: Well, you know, you can point certainly at dirty, dangerous, demeaning work in those extractive industries. So, mining, low-grade mining - not the kind with giant machines, but where people are still working with picks and shovels; coffee, cocoa, shrimp production; and then, you know, those jobs that are at the bottom level - brick making by hand, gravel making by hand. Those jobs which are at the lowest end of the economic ladder are the ones where you tend to find slavery concentrated.

CORNISH: Are there particular types of slavery that seems to be getting worse; things that may have appeared in one or two countries before but now seem more prevalent?

BALES: I think it's important to understand that a lot of people end up in slavery for doing what you or I would do in a similar situation, where we were in an insecure place with our family, we wanted to provide opportunity and support for our families and children, and we would go looking for work and safety abroad from the place that we live. Sadly, there are those slave recruiters who will use offers opportunity as a lure, as a conduit to drag people into slavery.

And that reflects the large numbers of people in the world who are becoming economic migrants, trying to better their lives and that of their family but a fraction of them are being caught up - and I think an increasing fraction of them are being caught up - in slavery.

CORNISH: Kevin Bales, thank you so much for walking us through this report.

BALES: It's been a pleasure, thank you so much.

CORNISH: Kevin Bales, he's from the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull. He spoke to us about the Global Slavery Index, which is published by the Australian-based Walk Free Foundation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.