Book summary: Ending Slavery (III)

This is the third part of my summary of the book “Ending Slavery” by Kevin Bales. You can read the first and second parts in this same blog. This third part will cover the chapter “Governments”.



This chapter bashes Japan big time. I’m not sure how much of it I should buy, but I can’t think of a reason why the author should be so biased against the country either.

It is surprising that there are so many slaves in modern, hightly educated, economically prosperous Japan. That there have been so many women imported for years with the support of the government is even more surprising until you have a look at Japanese culture.

The sex business is changing from old-fashioned brothels, strip clubs and others (with high overhead, meaning customers have to pay $300-$500 for sex) to “fashion massage shops”, staffed by heavily exploited foreign workers ($50-$90 for sex). Down the ladder, sex with foreign women on the street is $8-$10. All this is known as the “entertainment industry” in Japan. And prostitution is actually not legal in Japan, but its definition is only intravaginal heterosexual acts: anything else is legal and not regulated. Also, the law punishes solicitation (prostitutes are arrested and punished).

The Japanese government does a lot about illegal sex trade. To support it. For 20 years there has been a special kind of visa: the “entertainer visa”. Presumably it’s for singers/dancers, but then Japan has more than any country in the world (see graph on p. 109). What other country loves music so much that they need 133,103 singers/dancers in a single year? For a country that donates relatively large sums of money to combat poverty and disease around the world, being exposed like this was humiliating. The response was a lot of talk and an “action plan” with very little action, resulting in an increase from 6 to 25 victims found and protected. If there are tens of thousands of slaves in Japan, the government has only managed to find less than 1%. This could be expected in poor and rural countries, but Japan may be the best policed democracy in the world.

They use the kōban system, a one-room mini-police station with a territory of 1/5 of a square mile, an area most people would consider their neighbourhood. The police basically knows everyone and their business, very little happens without the police knowing. Comment: If I’m to believe Wikipedia, there are around 6,000 kōban and 127 million people in Japan. That’d mean more than 20,000 people per k_ō_ban?? Can they really know everything that is happening?. This police returns women, that came to seek help, to the traffickers. For women who are working in remote areas of Japan, it’s almost impossible to escape. Something is wrong if victims fear the police, crime is pervasive and officially ignored, and the flow of victims is increasing.

To fully understand slavery in Japan, one has to study racism in the country. No law prohibits racial discrimination. Comment: I found anecdotal evidence that Japan might have _racism _issues, but it might also be just cultural differences misinterpreted. Outside of many public places you can find signs which deny admittance to non-Japanese. There is a general view that women are inferior. Question: American prejudice? I found anecdotal evidence that it might be the case, that differences between men and women are not bigger than in the US. Domestic violence is an unmeasured ugly current. there was no clear law against it until 2002, and police routinely ignores assaults by husbands. Question: no references of this? that’s quite a bold statement without references! When meeting the NGO workers in Japan, the author was told they felt fighting not just criminals but the entire structure of government and culture.


Within four months of entering office, Lula set up a National Commission for the Eradication of Slave Labour as a permanent part of the government. Perhaps for the first time in history, a government proceeded in the right way, making sure everything was in place before taking action. The plan had some excellent ideas: the law against slavery would be tightened and the penalties increased. One of the strongest new proposals was very radical: expropriation without compensation of land belonging to slaveholders. It was suggested to distribute the land to poor, land-less workers to avoid re-enslavement (up to 40% of people freed had been freed more than once, pointing to a cycle of poverty, economic crisis and enslavement). The plan also established a “dirty list” of companies and people that used slave labour. Those on the list would be excluded from receiving funds, grants or credits from the government. Since much of the process of opening or developing land relies on government tax credits or supports, they would be driven out of business.

The plan achieved immediate and dramatic results. In 2003 the number of freed slave more than doubled, to 4,879. There was  some fight back, and in 2004 three officials from the labour ministry and their driver were murdered while investigating farms.

There may be no country in the world doing a better job, but it wasn’t perfect. More than 600 rural landlords were caught with slaves, but none went to prison, no property confiscated, and many continued their activities. The government needs to make the number of prosecutions, convictions and punishments public: transparency would help the public understand the tremendous task and potential for historic achievement. The UN has been critical with this lack of transparency and has pointed out the discrepancy between the number of freed slaves and the convictions.

Farms, mines and companies on the dirty list feed a supply chain that flows to US importers and customers. We need to face that we’re part of the process and we as consumers must ask companies to examine their supply chains. Cutting the demand for slave-made products is important, but there are a lot of steps in the supply chain. It’s much more effective to make sure that the Brazilian Special Mobile Inspection Groups, anti-slavery squads, etc. have the money they need to get their job done. The debt that Brazil services every year accounts for millions and it could be better spent on important programs like education and anti-slavery work that would stimulate the economy. Given that the US economy benefits from slavery in Brazil, it seems fair to give some back in the form of debt forgiveness.

What governments can do to end slavery

Nearly every country in the world needs its unique set of responses to slavery. There are many common elements, but the mix varies per country. In rich countries it’s just a matter of priorities and resources. For all other countries, there are key foundation blocks:

  1. Stop looking for the quick fix. Slavery is obviously a legal problem, but it’s also economic development, migration, gender discrimination, ethnic prejudice, corruption and political will. No quick fix, like busting up brothels, buying people out of slavery or passing laws (without making sure they’re enforced) will eliminate slavery.

  2. Focus on outcomes.

  3. Build a robust legal response. Once a clear picture of trafficking and enslavement is available, a country can build a legal response that deals with the crime. Some countries/languages have a special name for ex-slaves and an informal apartheid system that keeps them powerless. The law that decriminalises victims has to be explicit in that the consent of the victim is irrelevant. International law is clear that people can’t legally hand themselves over to slavery.

  4. Build a dedicated law enforcement team.

  5. Protect and support freed slaves. This help/support should be given no matter where the freed slave has come from.

  6. Raise awareness and promote prevention. Governments can increase public awareness of slavery and trafficking like public health: with advertising and education campaigns. These should also be public awareness campaigns aimed at potential victims of enslavement. Many ex-slaves say they didn’t know their enslavement was illegal until their liberators told them.

  7. Use diplomacy, trade and foreign aid to end slavery.

  8. Call out the army (and navy and air force).

And that’s it for now. The next post will cover chapter “Global problem, global reach”.