The Anti-Slavery Collective in conversation with Professor Kevin Bales

Kevin Bales

Our co-founders, HRH Princess Eugenie of York and Julia de Boinville, are delighted to be joined by Professor Kevin Bales. Kevin is Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham and Research Director of the Rights Lab. 

The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to society as a whole, sending shockwaves through medical, political and cultural systems. Our normal way of life has been completely altered. The issue of modern slavery has also changed, with new risks created and new challenges presented. 

Kevin explains how, as in the wake of natural disasters, traffickers are likely to have adapted their criminal operations to maximise their profits. Some may have abandoned their victims, leaving them destitute and extremely vulnerable. Some may have shifted to new forms of exploitation, such as cybersex trafficking. Those fighting modern slavery need to adapt too. Recognising this, the Rights Lab have mapped potential research responses into the impact of COVID-19, so that we can all learn from the gaps, weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic and, from this, catalyse positive change. 

Kevin’s story of hope testifies to the power of survivor-led organisations. Almost fifteen years ago, efforts began to eradicate hereditary slavery in villages of Northern India by building strong mechanisms. Kevin tells us that the women’s groups, who had been organised to fight for freedom, had mobilised faster than governments to prepare their, now free, villages for the pandemic. It is clear that, when rebuilding from the pandemic, we must elevate survivor voices.

It is clear that, when rebuilding from the pandemic, we must elevate survivor voices. As Kevin eloquently put it, “people in freedom, who can make their own choices and have learnt how to determine their own futures, can determine how to make life better and to protect the vulnerable.”

COVID-19 and Modern Slavery 

One of the main research areas of the Rights Lab examines how environmental change is interconnected with modern slavery. Kevin suggests that parallels can be drawn between the impact of natural disasters and the expected impact of this pandemic on modern slavery. 

Kevin explains how, in the aftermath of natural disasters, traffickers quickly adapt their criminal operations to maximise profit. Kevin notes that traffickers adapt rapidly as they are motivated by the lucrative, illicit profits that can be gained by exploiting another human being. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, traffickers pivoted from sex trafficking to labour trafficking; one of the largest labour trafficking cases in the United States occurred in the reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Nearly 500 men from India were trafficked to the US to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities. 

In the same way, traffickers have been forced to adapt due to the restrictions of COVID-19. For example, as we heard in our conversation with IJM Philippines’ National Director, Sam Inocencio, commercial sexual exploitation has moved online. During COVID-19, cybersex trafficking, especially of children, is expected to have risen, as demand for child sex abuse material has increased with predators spending more time at home and online. This new digital form of sex trafficking is even more lucrative, as traffickers can exploit their victim to thousands of customers around the world. 

Kevin also highlights the concern with what happens to the victims from whom their traffickers have not been able to profit during the pandemic. What has happened to those working in the textile industry in South Asia, where fashion supply chain disruption has caused mass job losses? What has happened to those who were intended to be trafficked to work across borders? These hugely vulnerable people have been made even more so. It is important that the intervention and support structures exist for those in this position, otherwise they risk further destitution and re-trafficking.

The Rights Lab

Kevin is the Research Director of the Rights Lab, an initiative at University of Nottingham that Kevin describes as a “dream come true.” The Rights Lab is the world’s largest group of modern slavery researchers and home to world leading academic experts on modern slavery. The Rights Lab has five research programmes on Data and Measurement, Communities and Society, Ecosystems and the Environment, Law and Policy, and Business and Economies. 

Their INSPIRE project (Involving Survivors of Slavery in Policy & Intervention Research) elevates survivor-informed research as a key part of knowledge production to help end slavery and support survivors to achieve a full freedom. It works across our five research programmes to ensure all our research is survivor-informed, and works globally with survivor-scholars to develop and deliver survivor-informed and survivor-led research.

The Rights Lab and COVID-19 

Recognising that the pandemic and the measures being undertaken to slow its pace and effect will have short, medium and long term impacts on modern slavery, the Rights Lab mapped potential research responses. 

In suggesting potential questions, this agenda tries to formulate a research response that can contribute to the understanding of, and response to, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts for modern slavery, including by supporting the design, development and adoption of new policies and interventions, and by gathering critical data and resources quickly for future research use. The research agenda includes questions about modern slavery in the UK and globally.

Find out more about the Rights Lab on their website

What can you do? 

Kevin believes that the most powerful action that every listener can take is to learn more. Whether you have been known about modern slavery for years or you first learnt about it today, now is the time to broaden your knowledge. There is a wealth of resources on the internet that you can access to find out more. 

Secondly, if you are able to, you can make a difference by financially supporting organisations that fight modern slavery. The pandemic has presented huge difficulties to the operations of anti-slavery organisations due to a lack of fundraising opportunities, volunteers, and prioritisation. Even the smallest of donations goes a very long way for frontline, grassroots organisations. 

Find out more ways you can help fight modern slavery, here

Professor Kevin Bales

Kevin is one of the world’s foremost experts of modern slavery. He is is Professor of Contemporary Slavery and Research Director of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, UK. He was a Co-Founder of the NGO Free the Slaves  and co-Author of the Global Slavery Index. 

Going undercover to meet slaves and slaveholders, Kevin Bales exposed how modern slavery penetrates the global economy in his Pulitzer-nominated book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. The film based on this book, Slavery: A Global Investigation (TrueVision), which he co-wrote for HBO and Channel 4, won a Peabody Award and two Emmys.

Find out more about Kevin and his work on his website

What do you think?