Kansas legislature

Kansas Legislature

Brownback, KU officials hope to draw on free-state history to fight modern-day slavery

January 31, 2013


Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback introduces keynote speaker and anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales during Kansas University’s first Kansas Conference on Slavery and Human Trafficking in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union. Thursday’s event opened a two-day symposium looking at ways to fight modern-day slavery around the globe.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback introduces keynote speaker and anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales during Kansas University’s first Kansas Conference on Slavery and Human Trafficking in Woodruff Auditorium at the Kansas Union. Thursday’s event opened a two-day symposium looking at ways to fight modern-day slavery around the globe.

Anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales speaks during Kansas University's first Kansas Conference on Slavery and Human Trafficking, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 in Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union.

Anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales speaks during Kansas University's first Kansas Conference on Slavery and Human Trafficking, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013 in Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union.

Kansas, a state whose roots lie in abolitionism, ought to be a leader in fighting the slavery that still exists all over the globe today, Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday.

That's the idea behind the first-ever Kansas Conference on Slavery and Human Trafficking, which kicked off Thursday night at Kansas University. A collaboration between Brownback and several different KU offices, the conference has brought in scholars from KU and elsewhere along with government officials to tackle the issue of modern-day slavery and provide inspiration for KU to become a leader on anti-slavery research.

It's only appropriate for a state and a city with a strong anti-slavery history, Brownback said in his conference-opening remarks Thursday night at Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union.

"This is who we are," Brownback said.

Brownback introduced to a crowd of around 200 people anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales, the conference's keynote speaker. Bales co-founded the group Free the Slaves, which works around the world to end all forms of slavery.

Bales laid out for the crowd the state of slavery today and the aim of the conference: to spark research that could light the way to possible fixes.

In some ways, Bales said, slavery is more prevalent in today’s world than ever. The estimated 27 million slaves across the globe today — a tough number to nail down — is twice the number that crossed from Africa to the Americas during more than 300 years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

But seen from another angle, slavery could be nearing its end. Those 27 million people actually make up the smallest fraction of the global population ever to be trapped in slavery.

“In many ways, slavery is standing on the precipice of its own extinction, and it’s just going to take one good hard kick to knock it over that edge,” Bales said.

Global problem

Modern-day slaves often live in nations with corrupt governments, in areas stricken by civil wars, widespread poverty or other problems that leave many people vulnerable, he said. He displayed a map showing areas of Africa, India and southeast Asia among the countries with the highest rates of slavery.

But slavery is also “hiding under the rocks” in every U.S. state, Bales said.

Some people are born into hereditary slavery related to debt. Most people drawn into slavery encounter some variation of the same situation, he said: With hungry children or sick spouses on their minds, they’re approached by someone sitting in the back of a truck asking a simple question: Want a job?

“If we were in the same fix, we would get in the back of that truck as well,” Bales said.

But the truck leads them hundreds or thousands of miles away, where they’re trapped performing dirty, dangerous work or being sexually exploited.

Today’s slaves may be children in Nepal forced to carry slabs of rock on their backs up and down mountains, or West African women taken to Washington, D.C., to be domestic servants.

One way modern slavery differs from slavery in the past, Bales said, is that the average price of a human being. In 1850, a slave in America cost as much as a house or hundreds of acres of land. Today, the average slave costs less than $100.

Though slavery is slavery no matter the price, that means today’s slaves are often tragically treated as disposable goods, he said.

“They’re not like buying a tractor,” Bales said. “They’re like using styrofoam cups.”

But the price of freeing slaves and, perhaps more importantly, setting them up for future success is also low: around $400 per freed slave, he said. That would put the total cost of freeing the world’s slaves at around $10.8 billion.

Bales credited Brownback with helping to lead the charge to fight modern-day slavery and human trafficking in the United States, as a U.S. senator. In 2000, Brownback and the late Paul Wellstone, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, worked to enact the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. That was a time when few were paying attention to the problem, Bales said.

"Slaves came to freedom, and abolition is nearer today, because Sam Brownback spoke truth to power," Bales said.

KU ready to lead

Hannah Britton, a KU faculty member who helped organize the conference, said KU could also lead the way on the issue. With encouragement from Brownback and research strengths in international issues such as human rights and social justice, she said KU has the potential to do valuable research.

The conference, which continues Friday with research presentations at the Kansas Union, has been booked with experts coming from across the country, she said.

“I think that’s a very good sign that KU can position itself as a leader on this issue,” said Britton, who is an associate professor of political science and women, gender and sexuality studies as well as the director of the Center for International Political Analysis at KU’s Institute for Policy and Social Research.

A state Senate committee this week began considering a bill that would create stricter laws to fight human trafficking, pushed for by Brownback.

Bales ended his talk Thursday with proof that slavery can be fought: video of mothers in Ghana reuniting with their children freed from slavery in the fishing industry there. They squeezed the boys against their chests, eyes closed and smiling wide.

"People ask me, 'How can you do this work? It's so sad,' " Bales said. "How can I not do this work when it's so happy?"


Orwell 1 year, 2 months ago

Shorter Brownback:

"Look! Over there!"


mikekt 1 year, 2 months ago

" Topeka......The New Kansas Lecompton ".........where the rich economically enslave the poor at every bang of the legislative gavel !


JayhawkFan1985 1 year, 2 months ago

Kansas also has a strong tradition of "good government." Brownback governs like a Kansas City or Chicago style political don't like it then I will squash you.


tennesseerader 1 year, 2 months ago

I am replying to the posts that are opposed to Brownback's proposed cuts to the KS state income tax.

Slavery is defined is working for free. Freedom is defined as keeping what you earn... So what he has proposed actually makes people that work for a living free. Shouldn't people that work be rewarded for their efforts?

I left Kansas because of their punitive tax system...And am considering returning if Kansas starts rewarding producers again. You can't punish producers...Read Ayn Rand


happyrearviewmirror 1 year, 2 months ago

First do no harm. The white-savior industrial complex reeks of imperialism, especially when Kansans get involved. It's impossible to contribute to others if understanding and cultural sensitivity are missing. These virtues seem ones that most Kansans take as a badge of pride to flaunt their lack of.

Before they try to stop human trafficking Kansans should stop terrorizing random pedestrians on the streets of Lawrence with their frighteningly aggressive ignorance. Get a clue. You are not God's gifts, and lack of political and social awareness makes you poor candidates to help others. No one wants the demeaning charity of a bunch of hicks. The best way to help is often to respect others' boundaries and realize they are enjoying their autonomy and independence just fine. They'd prefer presumptuous strangers not molest them, thank you.

Few welcome strangers pawing all over their belongings and person; door-opening is often seen as sexist by those who hail from sophisticated places. Southern manners bite. To think we have the ability to help others is often to give ourselves way too much credit. Intent and effect are hardly the same, especially where ignorance and incompetence play big factors.

People with a savior complex have a big ego problem , and their motives for interfering in the lives of others are usually self-serving.


Richard Heckler 1 year, 2 months ago

Brownback and ALEC represent reinstating modern day slavery. They want all white and blue collar workers to make less money and to hell with the American dream.

I would like for Sam Brownback,his chief admin people and ALEC to traffic their way out of the state of Kansas.


love2fish_ks 1 year, 2 months ago

The irony of this 'slave' discussion in Lawrence is that there are instances of human trafficing and slavery less than 2 mi from campus.


johnwoods 1 year, 2 months ago

I don't think anyone has said they hate Brownback (except for a few right leaning people putting words in the mouths of liberals, again), but feel that his policies of making the poor pay more in taxes and removing more services for the poor, lead to more human trafficking. Poor people will do what they need to to survive, and human trafficking is built on that.


ssteve1 1 year, 2 months ago

Boy do I hate Sam. I just really do hate him. Don't you hate him? I think we should all just hate him. Let's just hate hate hate hate. We don't need to offer fixes. Let's just hate. Then lawrence folks can be just like that guy from westboro that also hates everything.


Les Blevins 1 year, 2 months ago

Oppressively high student loan debt doesn't qualify as slavery because the student obtained the money they wanted and withdrew. On the other hand Brownback is making the decisions to oppress poor people when he cuts income taxes and raises sales taxes. It's as simple as that in my mind. Brownback is becoming a Robin Hood for the rich and takes his spoils from the poor and rewards the rich at the expense of the poor.


chootspa 1 year, 2 months ago

Although Brownback's economic policies are destructive toward most workers in this state, I agree that it's hyperbolic to call them "slavery" at this point.

However, policies on undocumented workers have the potential to rise to that point. "Self deportation" and "papers please" measures written by Kobach make it easier for employers to deprive undocumented (and documented) workers of rights and protections. Sometimes they can be used as threats toward domestic workers brought to this country under false pretenses. It's a common tactic to steal their passports and threaten to have them deported if they don't comply with demands.


UltimateGrownup 1 year, 2 months ago

Thanks to deec, above, for pointing out that China has millions of slaves. North Korea has a lot also. Some blacks are enslaved by Arabs in Sudan and Mauritania. And slavery was not ended in Russia until 1991 or so (think gulags). In the West, a significant percentage of prostitutes are slaves. Thanks to Governor Brownback, to Kevin Bales, and to KU for bringing this problem to light.


merickson 1 year, 2 months ago

Thanks, all, for commenting. I thought I'd throw in one other piece of last night's talk with anti-slavery activist/expert Kevin Bales, for you to consider as you discuss this story:

During the Q-and-A session following the talk, one man went to the microphone and asked (I'm paraphrasing here) if perhaps certain other hardships in our country — say, students trapped under six-digit college loans they could never hope to pay off — might be considered a relative form of slavery.

Bales' response: No. He acknowledged that hardships are on a spectrum and there are other awful things besides slavery, but he said he thinks the term "slavery" should be reserved for when human beings are literally being held as property with no way to get out of the arrangement — no ability, even, to move to a worse situation. He said there's no such thing as "relative slavery."

So, just something to keep in mind. Discuss away.


Matt Erickson

KU reporter


Les Blevins 1 year, 2 months ago

I think Brownback has appointed himself a modern day slave seller by selling us out to his big money supporters the Koch brothers instead of accepting the offer and proposal I submitted to him in January of 2011 right after he took office. I'll forward that letter to those who request it by email to with "brownback letter" in the subject line..


kusp8 1 year, 2 months ago

Look, I disagree with most of what Brownback does, but this is a no brainer. This is one area where hippy liberals and evangelical conservatives can, and should, agree upon. Not only that, the more cooperation on non-controversial issues the more exposure and inevitable discussion about the contentious issues will occur between the groups. Unfortunately, in today's day and age, simple discussion between the left and right is rare and a productive conversation is even fewer and farther between.

So lay off Brownie.... On this one.


Gotland 1 year, 2 months ago

Modern day slavery? Are they talking about federal taxation and/or deficient spending without consent?


autie 1 year, 2 months ago

The AFP and Kansas Chamber is directing the legislature to make the entire middle class slaves to the corporate mastery. Brownie is just following orders.


Mike Ford 1 year, 2 months ago

63bc.....when one does what brownback has done they deserve criticism... having your head in the sand must make it hard to see this.


Larry Sturm 1 year, 2 months ago

Produce a slave state get rid of all unions.


deec 1 year, 2 months ago

China has up to 5 million slaves in their prison labor system. Many are religious and political dissidents. Why did the governor praise normalized trade with this slave-holding government if he is so concerned about slavery?


mikekt 1 year, 2 months ago

Well, slavery is a en economic and brainwashing issue where the rich convince the poor that enslaving and scapegoating some other group of even poorer folks with less rights, is good and economically beneficial, etc..

It is like the regressive sales tax which brownie loves . The slavery of the poor who will pay a larger share of their income on necessities that are a minor cost to the rich man.


Cant_have_it_both_ways 1 year, 2 months ago

He is addressing this problem head on starting with the taxpayers being held as slaves to the unions.


Paul R Getto 1 year, 2 months ago

Not sure hatred is the right word, but Brownie does generate some opinions, strong ones at that.


63BC 1 year, 2 months ago

The amount of hatred by folks on this board is really amazing.

And that's the word---hatred.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 1 year, 2 months ago

What a hypocrite. Brownback's policies accelerating the downward spiral in the race to the bottom will create precisely the conditions in which slavery flourishes.


question4u 1 year, 2 months ago

"'This is who we are,' Brownback said." As he patted Virgil Peck on the head for suggesting the murder of immigrants from helicopters, laughed at Mike O'Neal's racist jokes and shook his hand for engineering the stripping of bargaining rights from public employees, and raised the tax burden on the poorest Kansans.

Saint, yeah.


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