Did you know an estimate 20 million people are living in slavery today?
Step 3 is educate yourself about where the things you buy come from. This becomes more and more important because the global economy is also an invisible one. When you pick up an item in a brightly lit store with familiar tunes playing in the background there is absolutely no way of knowing how many hands had part in bring that particular item to you. You don’t know how much they were paid, but judging by our insatiable thirst for bargains, the answer is most likely ‘not enough’.
I grew up in Norway, that frozen little country in Northern Europe, and I spent the first 25 years of my life in blissful ignorance about how it is that we can buy 2 pounds of oranges in December for about 2 dollars. I guess it has something to do with volume – when buying tons and tons of oranges the stores are able to get them for cheap – or any other excuse economists like to give when explaining the ill-logic of our reprehensibly exploitative financial system.
I decided to do my graduate thesis on human trafficking because once the facts really sank in – over 20 million people in slavery, actual, literal slavery – I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t a headline in the news every single day. That even after a degree in political science I still believed in the traditional history books that said slavery was abolished in 1865 and that was the end of that. I was about to learn a lot.
The definition of slavery is being forced to work without compensation, loss of freedom to quit or leave, and being under constant threat of violence – physical or psychological but usually both. The number of slaves is higher today than ever before in history but the percentage of total population in slavery is lower than before. This makes sense because of the explosive population growth in the past century. The International Labour Organization estimated that 9 of 10 trafficking victims are used as labor slaves, with the remaining 10% are victims of sex trafficking. Yet because the horrors of sex trafficking make for better headlines than agricultural workers, most people are better informed about sex trafficking. This is too bad because not everyone frequent brothels and sex clubs, whereas pretty much everyone has eaten food produced by slaves from Africa, Asia or anywhere in the South. A problem is a lot easier to ignore when it doesn’t concern me.
(There was a heartbreaking scene in the documentary Slavery: A Global Investigation that interviewed freed slaves from Cote d’Ivoire. These men had been forced to pick cocoa plants for years with no pay and they had the scars of countless lashes on their backs to prove it. When asked if he had ever tasted chocolate one of the men broke down and said, “I have never tasted chocolate but tell the people in your country that every time they eat it, they are eating my blood.” Several of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers, including Mars and Hershey, still refuse to pledge to stop using slave labor until 2020.)
The scariest aspect of modern day slavery is that it can happen to anybody. No, they won’t come with torches in the night and rob you from your bed. That method is barbaric and antiquated. Instead, they will make you sign your life over, willingly. Because of the staggering inequality that continues to increase between what we call developed countries vs developing countries, and also within individual countries, any person living paycheck to paycheck is vulnerable to trafficking. Traffickers use financial vulnerability to trick people into signing contracts for a decently paid job that doesn’t exist, whether that is as a farm worker, housekeeper, nanny or restaurant worker. This false position is usually some distance from the worker’s home town, frequently in another country, and when they arrive at the unfamiliar destination they are enslaved. A nanny or housekeeping job has become forced prostitution, a restaurant position turns out to be 18 hours a day in the kitchen, seven days a week, and in rural farms it is surprisingly easy to enslave foreign workers by isolating them completely. In the past four years two major farm labor trafficking cases have been exposed in Hawaii. In one instance, almost 100 Laos nationals were found working on a Big Island farm, away from their families for years, with no pay.
The reason for most suffering can be traced back to its origin by asking the simple question: who benefits? We would not have wars, slavery and oppression unless someone benefited greatly. In the case of modern day slavery we have to face the difficult truth and realize that person is us. We get cheap produce, electronic gadgets and clothes. Sex is always available, three clicks away, on Craigslist. If you are reading this article, chances are you are not a sweatshop worker, poor farmer or fisherman, beggar or current trafficking victim. Their voices are buried under all the loud and flashy advertisement telling us to ‘keep buying new stuff! Its created with planned obsolescence in mind so you can buy more tomorrow!‘
It is up to us to be their voice. We have to care about where things come from. In a global capitalist system, the voice of the consumer is one of the most important. It is certainly more important than the vote you cast every four years in national elections. Who and what is worthy of your money is a vote you cast almost every day, often several times a day.
Change starts with empathy. Empathy grows from knowledge.