We may not see forced labor explicitly in our day-to-day lives, but that illusion hides the reality that an estimated 20.9 million people are victims of forced labor globally, according to data from the International Labor Organization (ILO). Of the 20.9 million people exploited globally, 18.7 million, or 90 percent, “are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises,” the ILO reports. It is in this exploitation where we can be most culpable.
Supply chains for products are hard to keep track of, and if companies aren’t investing time, money, and energy in ensuring a clean supply chain, our consumerism continues to support labor exploitation. California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act, passed in 2010, is a first-of-its-kind legislation that requires “retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in California and having $100 million or more in annual worldwide gross receipts [to] inform their consumers about what the company is doing to end human trafficking and slavery within their supply chains.” Know the Chain, a non-profit organization, aims to be “a resource to promote greater transparency and dialogue around issues of slavery in supply chains.” As such, they provide information on California’s law and a list of companies that have and have not posted disclosure statements in requirement of that law.
While companies are being asked to do their share, we can do ours by examining what we use and how much that can contribute to forced labor practices. An Oakland-based non-profit, Slavery Footprint, allows users to take a short quiz about their lifestyle (what they wear, eat, etc.) and calculates based on that information, how many slaves work for that individual. You can take the quiz online or use their mobile app. As The Huffington Post points out, the calculation may be a little skewed, but it does shed light on which of our habits contribute the most to slavery around the world.
Our ability to be aware and do something is a fact that Martina Vandenberg wants us to remember. Vandenberg, founder and president of The Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center in Washington DC, spoke at The Commonwealth Club about facts and myths of human trafficking. She pointed out that slavery exists all around us. There have been recent cases of modern-day slavery, from women held in domestic servitude by diplomats just miles from the White House, to three women having been held for 30 years in Britain, including one woman who was believed to have been born in captivity.
That’s not all. People are held in slavery in almost every country in the world, and children are not immune. In many cases, due to a lack of financial resources and available credit, families may borrow money from other individuals with the intent of paying it back through labor. That’s how the conversation starts. However, once the person is indebted, a high interest rate ensures that the debt will never be paid back, and the person is bound to continue working as a slave indefinitely. That’s the story that Lisa Kristine encountered on her journey to India, Nepal and Ghana, for a project with Free the Slaves, an organization based out of Los Angeles. Kristine is a humanitarian photographer who captured portraits of men, women, and children enslaved in labor camps and sex trafficking in the countries she visited. She shared her work at The Commonwealth Club in November. She talked about people who work in brick kilns in India, often bringing their children with them, and the miners in Ghana who are forced to work in shafts hundreds of feet deep for up to three days at a time, or the men and women who pan for gold in mercury-tainted waters, often leading to disease and physical ailments.
Her portraits and stories bring a human face to slavery and remind us of its prevalence. According to the Global Slavery Index from the Walk Free Foundation, Mauritania has the highest prevalence of slavery today, with 140,000 – 160,000 enslaved individuals in a country of 3.8 million. In absolute numbers, India tops the list, with estimates ranging from 13.3 to 14.7 million enslaved people. The United States is estimated to have anywhere between 57,000 and 63,000 people in slavery. The report points out that factors that highly correlate with slavery are corruption, human development (such as levels of income and the availability of education and health care), GDP, and access to financial services. These factors are not surprising but they are also not the sole cause of slavery, because even the most developed of nations have some prevalence of slavery. For this reason, both Vandenberg and Kristine stress the importance of awareness among individuals—of what slavery is in today’s world, how it happens, and actions that we can take to reduce it, if not eliminate it. As much as eradicating slavery rests with institutions—governments that enforce their laws, corporations that check their supply chains—part of the onus lies on us. Our demand for products and services drives the supply and if we demand cleaner supply chains, fair and humane treatment of individuals, and understand that the cost may be a few extra dollars compared to a life lived in servitude, we may make a difference.