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

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.

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?”