December 2012 – How many slaves work for you?
At first glance this seems like a preposterous question, but it is not as farfetched as you may think. Slavery has existed at least since before 1760 B.C. when it was mentioned in the Code of Hammurabi. In ancient times, a person could become a slave when his land was conquered, when he couldn’t repay a debt, when he was kidnapped or bought or bound in hundreds of other situations.
Around the 1600s, another form of slavery was introduced to the world. White men from Europe invaded Africa and kidnapped men and women. They took their new slaves on a voyage to different parts of the British empire where they would sell them.
In America, the colonies followed the European example of slavery. The repercussions of those actions are still felt today. When slavery is mentioned, images of cotton fields, the brutal living conditions of slaves and the antebellum homes of plantation owners instantly come to mind.
Fortunately, there have always been great abolitionists who fought slavery every day of their lives – through legislation, through the Underground Railroad, and through moral persuasion and education. The generation that lived through the Civil War finally saw success with the abolition of slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation. But in reality, the war is never over and every generation must fight its own battle.
Similar to historical traffickers, today’s slave traders are not above using force or manipulation to get what they are after. Others are more subtle, using lies and deceit. Slave owners today go to impoverished families in poverty-stricken countries, offering children a better life than parents can provide. They promise education, easy living and a life of opportunity and freedom.
Traffickers then take the children to another country and force them to work in unsafe conditions, enduring long days of backbreaking work.
Tragically, some parents seek out traffickers to sell their children, fully knowing the lives they are forcing on them. They justify their actions by saying the selling of one child will feed and clothe the younger ones.
Historically, slaves worked in the fields or did domestic labor. However, a different situation has emerged in recent years.
In India, trafficked slaves, some as young as 6, may work in brassware factories. They remove molten metal from 2,000 degree furnaces to make vases, tea sets and kitchen faucets. Many will develop respiratory infections and diseases as a direct result of breathing in metal dust and fumes from the furnaces.
In West Africa, slaves produce America’s favorite dessert, chocolate. During the harvest season, children as young as 12 – likely barefoot, dehydrated and malnourished – are forced to work long hours carrying sacks of wet cocoa beans weighing more than themselves. The chocolate is then processed and sold across the world.
In China, children are in even greater danger. Many factories making fireworks use illegal child labor. These children, who aren’t old enough to play with fireworks in the U.S., have a quota to meet. If they do not meet this quota, they experience beatings and humiliation. It is ironic that the quintessential tool for celebrating freedom in America is created by children with no concept of freedom.
Today’s slavery battlefield is more ruthless, more deadly and more deceptive than any other time in history. And today’s soldiers against slavery are fighting harder than ever before. They know what is at stake and are taking a stand. This generation’s freedom fighters often use YouTube to disseminate videos about the plight of today’s slaves. Others create websites such as www.productsofslavery.org, an interactive map informing viewers where slavery is most prominent around the globe. The site also gives information about what products in our own homes are likely to be made using slave labor.
Another human rights campaign launched www.slaveryfootprint.org. The site asks visitors questions about the products in their homes. Based on their answers, the site informs them how many slaves work for them. The average answer is 34.
Beyond informing individuals and families about their role in modern day slavery, today’s fighters inform and challenge companies and organizations regarding their responsibility to check their supply chains for slave labor. Many are resistant because it is neither easy nor cost effective. But due to public pressure, many are joining a growing movement of becoming a fair trade company.
When the first freedom fighters began waging war against slavery, they understood they would be fighting on several fronts. Some chose to dedicate themselves to the legislative front. William Wilberforce, whose life was depicted in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, was one such hero. He fought for 20 years in the British Parliament to prohibit slave ships from traveling to Africa to kidnap slaves.
But changing legislation takes time, and other soldiers take a more personal approach. Harriet Tubman was one who helped escaping slaves reach safety via the Underground Railroad in the U.S. She risked her freedom and life on the 13 trips she took to help people escape slavery.
Frederick Douglass fought on yet another front trying to change the American culture by informing people that all human beings are worthy of respect and valued by God. The abolitionist even took the issue to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.
Today’s heroes go to impoverished countries with food, tools and other supplies so parents won’t feel the need to sell their children. There are legislative heroes who have prioritized human trafficking and pushed for sanctions against countries that do not protect their own citizens.
The last hero could be the American consumer. Those who see the plight of slaves today and choose to educate themselves have learned the best way to stop slavery is simply to kill the demand. People will continue to steal, kill and manipulate others as long as they can make a profit from it. Stopping the profit will stop the trafficking.
Fair Trade USA (www.fairtradeusa.org) partners with hundreds of companies and identifies those which have committed to avoid slave labor in their supply chain for products such as coffee, chocolate, sugar, honey, flour and cotton. Each company monitors its supply chain to inhibit slavery and pay for freely produced goods. This takes the profit from a slave trader’s pocket and puts it into the hands of a man who owns a farm and wants to hire employees legally. This helps that owner, his workers, their families and ultimately, even the American consumer who gets a better quality product that is made by someone who wants to be there rather than someone who is there by threat of violence against his family.
More about putting an end to human trafficking
2013 Trafficking in Persons Report
CNN's focus on human trafficking
Renting Lacy by former congresswoman Linda Smith. Caution: mature content. Available at online booksellers
Not For Sale by David Batstone. Available at online and local booksellers