Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick's new book has the wrong title. Rather than What Slaveholders Think: How Contemporary Perpetrators Rationalize What They Do, he should have called it something like The Decline of Bonded Labor in India's Changing Society. The main focus of the book is the practice of bonded labor in India. A long-held practice, it is in decline and has been severely curtailed through legal means and societal pressure. Choi-Fitzpatrick has interviewed many farmers and laborers to get a sense of this shift in attitudes.
On that count, What Slaveholders Think is an interesting study. It's amusing and pathetic to hear the landowners' nostalgia for the way things used to be. They speak of their laborers as family and of their paternalistic concern for their laborers. But things are changing. One farmer complains, "When people used to listen to us, life was good. We were running our lives very well. But now, since they're not listening to us, even we hesitate to call them for work, and they hesitate to come to us for work." I was reminded of nostalgia in the American south for the old days on the plantation.
The reality of bonded labor is probably darker than what Choi-Fitzpatrick portrays, reliant as he is on the farmers' perspectives. But workers now are so secure in their rights that if a farmer yells at them, they might go to the authorities to complain about their treatment, to the farmers' chagrin. I don't have a lot of sympathy for the farmers, who perpetuate a system which holds the laborers in perpetual debt. But it is true that they are victims, too, in a way. Like other parts of the world, large-scale corporate farms are taking over. Small farmers can't afford the large equipment required, and are increasingly unable to use the cheap manual labor they had in their indentured servants.
When I think of slavery, I think of chattel slavery in the United States, in which people were bought and sold or kidnapped and forced to work. Or I think of modern day sex trafficking, in which people are kidnapped or otherwise unwillingly forced into sex work. As Choi-Fitzpatrick writes, though, these represent only a slice of modern-day slavery. He states that "around half of the world's slaves are held in debt bondage in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh." That's "ten to twenty million people living in bonded labor." Although there have been great strides, both due to activism and the realities of agricultural markets, in reducing debt slavery, "bonded labor is not considered to be a problem by Indian society at large."
Choi-Fitzpatrick does a service to shed light on bonded labor in South Asia. As he learns, the farmers and others who use bonded labor are human, not the face of evil. Yet the perpetuation of the unjust system allows evil to keep a foothold. As India becomes more modernized and urbanized, those who work as bonded laborers will continue to seek a way out, but a cultural shift will have to occur to truly end the practice.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!