Modern Slavery

Modern Slavery: Reality and Fiction

By Regina Allen

According to a 2014 UN report, tens of millions of people in the world today are enslaved. Today. Right now. This is not regulated slavery. This is cruel and heartless people forcing impossible conditions on others. Kevin Bales in his book Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide and the Secret of Saving the World (Random House, 2016) describes the conditions of slaves across the world. I listened to his interview recently on NPR’s Fresh Air and it made me think.

We are the privileged. We live in our first world bubble which would not be possible without the slavery and hardships that exist outside our bubble. One aspect of our privilege is that we are allowed to live inside our bubble without thinking about or acknowledging third world conditions. The things we do, the products we use throughout our days, exist because slavery exists, because others live in conditions more horrific than we can even imagine. We don’t accept the burden of our privilege because we can’t. The only way to maintain the lifestyle with which we are accustomed is to convince ourselves that we are good and moral people. We believe that about ourselves and we carry on. We use our cell phones to text, pay bills, take selfies to send to friends and play games. We feel good about ourselves when we give to charities, remember Mom’s birthday and say thank you to the kind person who held the door for us. We listen to music on our great stereo systems as we drive our nice cars to jobs we like. We think about our loved ones—our healthy children, smiling spouses and friends. We can do all this because there are people out there who may never hear beautiful music, experience love of any kind or ride in a car. The food we give our pets is more bountiful, more healthy and quite likely more delectable than anything these people will ever know.

All of this is merely observation. I don’t pretend to have answers. I don’t believe that if I were to venture outside of our bubble or sacrifice my individual luxuries that things would or could be better for someone. I am certainly no expert. I just want to begin a conversation.

Dystopian novels have been popular reads in recent years, especially among young adult readers. In these books there are almost always the “haves” and the “have-nots.” These books mirror, not the future which is when most of these stories are set, but present day. Because they are fiction and because they describe a world that is mild in comparison, we are able to digest these books. We can take them in and think about them abstractly. We are able to tell ourselves that it isn’t real. We say that life is stranger than fiction but really life is more (far more) hellish than fiction. We have to water it down to make it palpable to our sensitivities and even to make it believable. These stories are safe because they are fiction. They are also safe because they inevitably end with hope.

In The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer tells us about the plankton factory where boys are forced to use nets to extract stink bugs out of the brine tanks and harvest ripe plankton. She describes unpleasant working conditions, brain-washing and physical abuse. Compared to the real life boy slaves of Bangladesh working in shrimp and fish processing plants that are nothing more than beaches created from the deforestation of mangrove forests, the fictitious plankton factory is a walk in the park. In Bangladesh, Bales witnessed boys being, “…brutalized, forced to work 24, 36 hours a day, working in the cold. They were wet. They were slicing up fish, processing them at a high speed. Any false move, any mistakes would lead to a beating.” He goes on to say that they are beaten if they fall asleep. Also, due to deforestation the boys have replaced deer as a food source for the protected Bengal tiger, a minor inconvenience for their captors. This is not fiction. No one made this up. Farmer had to play it down in order to make her fictitious account believable.

Another Farmer book set centuries into the future, The Ear, The Eye and the Arm, also resonates with real time slavery. In this book, children are forced to sift through mountains of plastic garbage accumulated over centuries to find treasures to be sold or bartered. These slaves must sift through plastic grocery bags to find anything of value in this new world. Such items may be plastic bowls, spoons, toys, or anything made of plastic. They burrow through tunnels within the plastic mountains, creating honeycombs of plastic bags and trash. Compare this to Bales’s description of real life, real time gold mine slaves in Africa.

Their clothes are ragged. Their clothes are dirty. Their clothes, in the heat of the Congo, are very often just barely a bit of boxer shorts or some shorts, a T-shirt, which is torn up and ragged. Women will have on a slight shift or a – something, a skirt and a T-shirt, as well. But, I mean, it’s very minimum. Often they’ll have sandals, but often they’ll be barefoot. And certainly you see around them, on their bodies, scars and bruises and burns and lots and lots of dirt. The jobs that they are doing are divided up in two or three categories. One is simply the digging – digging into the side of the mountain or digging down from the top, and you’re just hammering away with hammers and chisels and shovels to pull these minerals out. Another job will be hauling those minerals on your back out of the tunnels and out of the holes to take them down to the river where they’ll be handed over to more women workers who will then wash the minerals to get a lot of the clay and other dirt off them. They just put them in giant tin cans with lots of holes poked in the can to shake around in the water and clean them up a little bit. Then there will be people who put those into bags, and then those people who carry those bags and stack them up and store them because then it’s now become a valuable commodity. Near the structure is controlled by the armed gangs. And then ultimately, there will be people who are enslaved whose job it will be to put those bags on their back and walk for 20, 30, 40, 50 miles to get them out of there and into the supply chain that brings them to our cell phones.

The hero in Paulo Bacigliapli’s Shipbreaker climbs through abandoned ships in order to gather metal parts to be sold and reused. The ships have become useless because the oil industry has collapsed in Bacigliapli’s vision of the future. It’s a dangerous job as is the job of clambering through the computer dumps in Asia where people salvage computer parts. Real life. It’s interesting that as readers we connect with the destitute heroes and not the often distant and sometimes naïve elite. We are the elite in the real world. If you are reading this, you most certainly are a member of the elite class living inside a pretty bubble.

The parallels may be shocking but reality is just so much more horrific than the fiction.



Bacigalupi, Paolo. Shipbreaker. Little Brown Books, 2011.

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Water Knife. Knopf, 2015.

Bales, Kevin. Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World. Random House, New York, 2016.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic, 2010.

Davies, Dave, Radio interview of Kevin Bales. Fresh Air, NPR, Jan. 20, 2016.

Farmer, Nancy. The Ear, the Eye and the Arm. Puffin, 1995.

Farmer, Nancy. The House of the Scorpion. Atheneum, 2004.

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