Just a few years ago, I believed that slavery was a thing of the past. When I was growing up, I loved to read stories of abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, and I imagined myself joining their cause had I been alive in that time. I assumed that since slavery is illegal, it was no longer practiced, except maybe in rare cases.
Then, I began to hear the term ‘Human Trafficking’ more and more. I believed it referred to instances of young women being tricked or kidnapped into the sex trade, much like in the movie Taken. In 2011, I learned there was much more to it than that. I heard a shocking statistic: “There are 27 million slaves in the world right now. That’s more than during the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade.” I was blown away. It shook me to my core that this was a real thing – right now, in my world, in my lifetime. I thought back to my daydreams as a child, of smuggling slaves to safety, and how I’d said if I had been alive then I would’ve done something. I thought to myself, “There are slaves now. And I’m alive. So I need to do something.” I believed that passion to fight slavery had been there from a young age and now was my time to act. But I had no idea where to start.
I began reading and researching, trying to get a picture of what modern-day slavery looked like. I watched documentaries such as Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, which told the story of sex trafficking around the world. I heard about Amsterdam’s Red Light District where prostitution is legal, and women are displayed in windows available for sex with buyers. I was horrified to learn that in Cambodia it is considered a blessing to have a daughter because the family will be able to sell her, usually for sex. I read that a large percentage of Moldova’s population had simply disappeared due to trafficking. It is, in fact, the biggest source country for trafficking. There was no shortage of information on sex trafficking.
Other forms of slavery took a little more digging to learn about. In his book, Not for Sale, the author, David Batstone, talks about the moment he realized there was forced labour going on at his favorite local restaurant in California. Sadly, this type of slavery is much more prevalent than we realize. I read Invisible Chains, which revealed trafficking in my own country, Canada. I learned that slavery here often shows up in massage parlours, restaurants, and nannying services. Canada is also a destination country for those trafficked from Eastern Europe.
Over the past several years, I’ve learned more and more about slavery. I had heard about forced labour existing in the supply chain of many everyday products, but I didn’t realize how far-reaching that went. I watched the documentary The True Cost and saw how interwoven exploitation, both of humans and of the planet, is in the textile and fashion industry. In Slavery: A 21st Century Evil, I learned of Thai workers being exploited on pineapple plantations in Hawaii. I learned why fair trade is a thing. It was initiated in response to rampant child labour in the harvesting of coffee. Similar abuses exist in the farming of cocoa beans for chocolate. Tea, sugar, and cotton are other products that are often harvested with forced labour or child labour.
Eventually, I heard the term “conflict minerals.” These are minerals found in electronics and jewelry, which are mined with forced labour in the Congo. The profits from trading in conflict minerals are used by armed groups and Congolese military to fund their violent campaigns.
Another mineral mined with slave labour is Mica, a valuable mineral deposit used as an insulator in electronics, and also as the ‘secret ingredient’ in cosmetic products to give them their shine. A report from Antislavery.org says,“The dangers of open-cast mica mining are multiple and in some cases fatal. Scavenging in the rocky ground, child miners risk snake and scorpion bites, whilst digging holes they risk being buried alive by collapsing slag piles, they also regularly suffer from cuts and skin infections and the mica dust can cause respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, silicosis and asthma.” Similar situations are found in the mining of granite and the making of bricks in India.
Forced labour is actually a much bigger issue than sex slavery. In 2012, the International
Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that worldwide there were 14.2 million victims of forced labor compared with 4.5 million victims of forced sexual exploitation. Their stories don’t seem to make headlines as easily as those of sex trafficking. Perhaps because “sex sells”, as they say. Or perhaps because it’s easier to advocate an issue that requires little personal responsibility. Unless you’re a trafficker, victim of sex trafficking, or someone who purchases sex, you are not directly connected to this problem. With forced labour on the other hand, when we learn of it, we must realize that we are connected to it every time we purchase something it’s touched. To fight this kind of slavery requires much more personal responsibility.
Now, I know all of this can seem overwhelming. Where do I start? What is safe to buy? These are some of the questions I faced and am still seeking answers to. Don’t be paralyzed by trying to fix everything at once. Start with what you can. What are some items that you can start swapping out for fair trade versions? I now buy only Fairtrade coffee and tea, and look for fair trade options on other items when available. Together we can make a difference when we each play our part. The purpose of this blog is to identify where injustice exists and learn how each of us can be part of a solution. There is hope for justice to be delivered.
It’s difficult to adequately communicate everything I’ve learned in the past few years, but I have tried to paint you a picture. It helps to know what we’re up against so we best know how to fight it. The monster of slavery is bigger and more pervasive than many realize. But it is also more fragile than ever since is not a major contributor to the economy as it once was and is a strain on the environment. (Read this post for more on that.) There’s much to do, and as The Exodus Road points out, we need to be as organized and collaborative against slavery as traffickers are in doing it. I invite you to join me in discovering how we can walk the paths of justice, together.