Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade - and How We Can Fight It

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade - and How We Can Fight It

by David Batstone

HarperCollins, HK$120

More people are bartered around the world today than in four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Twenty-seven million people are now enslaved - 80 per cent of them female, 50 per cent under the age of 18, and most of them in the sex trade.

As University of San Francisco ethics professor David Batstone notes in his ultimately uplifting book, Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade - and How We Can Fight It, human trafficking generates US$31 billion annually: 'The commerce in human beings today rivals drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade for the top criminal activity on the planet.'

The scale is oppressive. Globalisation has elevated sex trafficking to near-corporate efficiency - sophisticated communication, the ease of conducting international business, relaxed banking laws, and virtual commerce are exploited by organised crime syndicates to perpetrate the obscenity.

Batstone doesn't merely catalogue crimes and tragedies - he offers an understanding of the economic and social mechanisms that lead to slavery, the ways in which it can be intercepted and prevented, and how its victims' trauma can be healed.

'[W]hy does sex slavery thrive so in Southeast Asia?' Batstone asks. 'Four powerful forces collude to rip apart stable communities in the region: 1) devastating poverty; 2) armed conflicts; 3) rapid industrialisation; 4) an exploding population growth.' Political scientists have reached no definitive consensus regarding the dominant force, but concur that Southeast Asia is hamstrung by a radical economic transition. And whenever a society faces seismic changes, the powerless suffer most.

The equation is simple: extreme poverty fractures families, and fractured families abandon children. The world over, impoverished children simply vanish. 'Orphanages have become one of the few (legal) growth industries in eastern Europe over the past two decades,' Batstone writes. '[R]ecruiters find willing collaborators inside the orphanages who will betray children at the right price. Human rights groups report that orphans ... are sold and trafficked internationally for use in child pornography rings.' The US State Department has exposed orphanage directors in Moldova and Romania for selling information on children to traffickers and even organising their abductions.

'Human traffickers are most successful in finding young girls among destitute rural villages,' Batstone reports. 'Best estimates indicate that thirty thousand Cambodian children are exploited in the sex trade and as many as one-third of these are under eighteen years old.' Southeast Asia is one of the world's largest exporters of sex slaves to brothels in Japan, China, Australia, Europe and the US.

Neo-Victorian mores help shape the sex trade. The steep social value attached to sexual purity in Asia acts as 'a club that beats enslaved women'. Once an unmarried girl has lost her virginity, she's considered almost less than human. 'It does not matter if a family member sexually abused her or a stranger raped her,' Batstone writes. 'Purity is all or nothing ... Her family will treat her as a blight to its honour, and no 'respectable' man will want to marry her. The girl might as well be sold into a life of prostitution, for she has lost her innocence.'

The purchase of human beings for sexual use is a global commonplace. Prostitutes are used by international businessmen as a courtesy in commercial deals; working-class men hire women for their friends on special occasions; fathers arrange for sons to lose their virginity in brothels. A pragmatic idealist, Batstone animates these political and economic realities with individual plights, recording the desperate realities of house slaves, mothers beaten into prostitution, and child prostitutes. But, unlike others, he offers hope: stories of abolitionists are included, and ways in which readers can help stop the obscenity - through, say, donations of money or know-how to micro-enterprises launched to create sustainable jobs for ex-slaves. 'Frankly, most of these erstwhile entrepreneurs are out of their depth: they have backgrounds in social work or religious ministry, not business management. They badly need ... expertise honed from years of experience.'

One example is Frank Woods, a high-profile Australian caterer, who moved to Cambodia to help foundering anti-slavery micro-enterprise Hagar Catering. Through him, Hagar not only secured a number of spectacular contracts - including one with the five- star InterContinental - but was restructured to provide maximum efficiency. Hagar now employs 70 ex-slaves and its profits help fund its philanthropic programmes.

Abolishing slavery requires funding, analysis, international cooperation and, critically, the ideological participation of ordinary people. 'I believe in the power of individuals to change the world,' Batstone writes. 'When you tell yourself that there is nothing that you can do to arrest the global slave trade, you underestimate your own potential and abandon hope for those trapped in captivity.'

As British statesman Edmund Burke once said, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.