Skip to content

What’s Your Slavery Footprint?

Free the Slaves estimates that 27 million people worldwide are enslaved. Many are bonded labourers, enslaved to work off debts which can grow over time and may be passed between generations. Others are forced labourers, compelled to work under threat, unable to receive access to basic workplace protections, and unpaid. They are all around us, in every country on Earth, at every step of the supply chain, from agriculture to fashion. As consumers, we are all complicit in this system.

A recently released application called the Slavery Footprint allows you to calculate exactly how complicit you are; I, for example, have 32 slaves working for me. The application uses data about a wide range of products to come up with a general score which you can refine further by drilling down into specific details about the kinds of products you buy and use. It is not without flaws; the shiny web application is not very accessible, for example, it mandates a binary gender selection to allow you to use it, and it doesn’t single out specific brands, although this supposedly will be supported in the future.

It does highlight the use of slave labour in numerous popular products, like smartphones, chocolate, and coffee. The widespread use of slaves in the supply chain is something that makes many consumers, and producers, uncomfortable; Apple, for example, banned Phone Story, an application about the use of slave labour in the production of smartphones. Oddly enough, discomfort doesn’t make the problem go away

In addition to raising awareness, the application provides some tools for action, like the ability to ‘check in’ to find out if there are available alternatives to a given company or product, or to send letters asking companies to change their labour practices. In an era where adding coloured ribbons to things seems to pass as activism, the idea of an application that adds concrete actions to awareness is quite refreshing.

Getting slaves out of the supply chain is extremely difficult, thanks to the global nature of capitalism. Slave-free goods are freely mingled with goods produced by slaves, and become impossible to disentangle. With coffee, for instance, some plantations use fair labour practices, but their beans are sent to the same processing facilities as those produced by slaves and child labourers. Certifying products as ‘slave-free’ under these conditions is an uphill battle.

The United States Department of Labor has a list of items produced with the use of slave and child labour, but even it admits this list is incomplete. For one thing, it doesn’t address the use of slave and child labour in the United States, and some nations are overrepresented in the list, while others aren’t present at all. What it does highlight, however, is that slavery touches almost every consumer good imaginable, and that slaves tend to be people most vulnerable to exploitation, like women, indigenous populations, and people living in poverty.

Through debt bondage, for example, someone may become a slave in trade for medication, and stays enslaved as the lender provides food and housing, for a fee, requiring the labourer to work the debt off. This becomes an unending spiral from which there is no escape, because there is no way to ever fully work off the debt. Forced labourers are often deceived, a common practice with domestic servants, who are promised something very different from what they actually encounter when they’re trafficked across borders.

An estimated 50,000 people are in forced labour in the United States alone. The biggest users of forced labour are the sex industry, agriculture, sweatshops and factories, restaurants and hotels, and private employers seeking domestic servants. A Cornell study cites low regulation, high demand for cheap labour, and poor wages as factors in the use of forced labour in these settings. Many members of the general public are unaware of the extent of forced labour in the US, dismissing slavery in general as a problem restricted to the developing world when in fact it’s prevalent everywhere.

Fighting forced labour in the United States has become a particularly fraught issue. It’s viewed as a crime against the government more than a human rights violation, which means that there’s not a solid framework in place to protect and assist victims. In fact, some victims are themselves regarded as criminals because many are undocumented immigrants. This is used against them by their handlers, who threaten them with deportation and other punishments if they attempt to make reports to the authorities. In situations where forced labour is uncovered and law enforcement authorities take action, terrified victims may not cooperate with the investigation and prosecution, rightly fearing punishment.

These dual victims, forced into labour and punished for being in the country illegally, lack access to support networks not just in the US, but also in their home nations. Cases of retaliation have been documented when people come forward, exposing their family members at home to risk if they dare to report forced labour or unsafe working conditions. Safety for survivors and their families is not a high priority in investigations, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

Eradicating the use of slavery worldwide is a tremendous challenge; there’s a reason organisations have been working on this issue for decades. The fact that it’s difficult doesn’t make it any less necessary. The nature of the supply chain means that it can be extremely hard to purchase truly slave-free goods, but making it clear that there is a demand for those goods can be a step in the right direction. Major chocolate producers, for example, have been pressured into better regulation of working practices through campaigns targeting their use of slave and child labour. Publicly naming and shaming firms that use slaves in full awareness indicates that the public isn’t interested in tolerating the practice, and wants to see reforms.

Calculating your slave footprint might surprise you, especially if you take advantage of the extra features, which don’t just fine-tune your final score. The application also provides detailed information about specific products and industries, finishing with a global map showing where the slaves who produce the goods you use live and work. My map featured dots across the globe, highlighting the effects of globalisation on the supply chain.

32 Comments

  1. Julian Morrison wrote:

    Are you leaving out forced labour in prison (and the deeply racist “drug war” so called that fills them up with black men)?

    It was interesting to see how, in places where they have driven out the illegals who used to do the underpaid agricultural work, and the result has been massive under-staffing, the immediate resource they turned to was enslaved prisoners.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink
  2. Emmers wrote:

    Strong concur about the Javascript site there; I wish they had a more accessible/more granular app. But I still appreciate the concept.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  3. Sean Wills wrote:

    Thanks for posting this. Exploitative labour (particularly in the ‘third world’, and particularly in order to supply luxury products to the first) is something that’s been bothering me more and more as time goes on. It really, really needs to be highlighted more, and I think websites like this are a good start.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Kathy wrote:

    Again, thanks for posting this. I think I’m a pretty conscientious consumer who lives simply and I still had 27 slaves working for me. That’s 27 too many.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink
  5. Megpie71 wrote:

    Their lovely little app doesn’t appear to recognise that Australians exist. Or possibly that Western Australians exist (or that people from WA go through ISPs which put their routers in the big data centres in Sydney and Melbourne or whatever… either way, the silly thing hangs for me on the first question, and I can’t be arsed trying to figure out why).

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Chevy wrote:

    I found the part in the quiz about sex work a little iffy. It seemed to be saying that all sex work contributes to sex slavery, when in reality…not so much. There’s a difference between sex work and sex trafficking/slavery.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  7. Jordan wrote:

    While its a great concept, I must say I’m really skeptical their answers are remotely accurate.

    There are about 27 million slaves worldwide, on their own figures.

    Now I’ve got 25 slaves working for me. Admittedly, I’m very privileged with respect to wealth. I’m definitely nowhere near membership of Australia’s 1%, but I might very conceivably be in the global 1%.

    And yet the global 1% is still 70 million people. If everyone outside that band has a slave footprint of ZERO, and everyone inside it has about the same footprint as me – and my number seems indicative of the websites’ answers given Kathy and s.e. smith’s figures – that still leaves 1.75 billion slaves in the world, or 65 times their own estimate of the total.

    Maybe I’m just in denial, but I somehow doubt my, s.e.’s and Kathy’s lifestyles are so especially slave intensive to account for this two order of magnitude discrepancy (I fine-tuned my settings when the app suggested to, e.g. on electronics.)

    Even a slave footprint of one is too high, and needs serious action. But when you can’t trust the way an organisation like this computes its figures, it undermines the credibility of their message.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink
  8. Jordan wrote:

    Apologies for the double post.

    A correction: while Slavery Footprint also cites the 27 million estimate, they appear to be a distinct from the source, Free the Slaves.

    And it seems my figure of 25 is the average of everyone who’s taken the survey so far. Are there really only a million people in the world who match the profile of the sample they have?

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink
  9. tree wrote:

    This was an interesting (although often frustrating) experience. In some cases the questions were too unspecific. When answering questions about clothes, for example, do you count the ones you made yourself? I understand that there was probably slavery involved in making the material and the trimmings, but obviously none in making the garment itself. It would be good to know if there’s a quantifiable difference there. Likewise, some of the questions regarding various food items and hygiene. If you’re drinking goat milk from your or your neighbours goats, and/or making soap from the same, then in theory it shouldn’t count toward your footprint.

    I actually think the best part of the site is the specific examples they give on each page. For most of the questions I was thinking, “yes, except…” or “only if…”

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 1:19 am | Permalink
  10. Crys T wrote:

    What Tree said. And also, I think there’s a big difference in whether or not you got your clothes first- or secondhand. Yes again, there may have been slavery involved in the initial making of the clothing, but if you bought it used in a charity shop, you’re not contributing to the company that originally sold it or towards creating more demand.

    Also, yes, I do used deodorant, but I use Lush solid deodorant. I’m not so naive that I believe this product is completely squeaky-clean, but as it’s made of different substances and has no packaging, it’s going to have a different profile. Ditto my other “personal hygiene” items.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink
  11. Pthalo wrote:

    I think it’s an important thing, but I also agreed it was a bit unspecific. It asked me for my location, but it didn’t seem to take my location into account in analysing the data. For example, it said I could reduce my slavery footprint by reducing the use of paprika. I live in Hungary. Paprika is our main spice. We put it on everything. It is grown here and produced here. Paprika comes from the villages surrounding my city. They aren’t slaves, they are farmers.

    It also said I could reduce my slavery by owning less clothes. This was surprising, because the default values assumed I had 50 of each kind, which was way too high. I only have 5 pairs of pants. I don’t have many shoes. I buy new shoes when the soles fall off. I have a computer, yes, but I need it for my work. As for makeup products, I have a bar of soap for cleaning my body when I bathe, and a bottle of shampoo for cleaning my hair. That’s it really.

    It says I have 15 slaves. I’m not sure how a person could get a number less than that unless they own no clothes at all and never bathe and don’t have a computer and can’t take the test anyway. I get all my clothes second hand, anyway.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  12. Brian wrote:

    Are there really only a million people in the world who match the profile of the sample they have?

    No, it’s definitely not the case that “27″ means “You have 27 slaves working full time for you. I’m in the top 10% globally, but just barely, and I got 27 as well. If the top 10% average 27 slaves apiece, more than 300% of people would be slaves, which is obviously not the case.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  13. Princess R wrote:

    This was kind of enlightening, but I wish that there was more granularity and ability to get regional. Because given how I shop, I’m pretty sure that the areas that were highlighted are not the actual areas my “slaves” are in. (For example I buy cosmetics rather conscientiously, and I try very hard to eat local. I don’t necessarily think this removes slaves from my pool…although I hope it does…but I bet it means the balance of my forced labor is probably actually in the US.)

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 11:30 am | Permalink
  14. KJ wrote:

    Without downgrading the very real efforts of commenters here (and others) to live simply and exploit as few people as possible, I feel like the point here is less “You, personally, are a jerk” and “We live in, and participate in to some degree, systems that make it nigh-impossible to NOT exploit someone or several someones we don’t even know.”

    I’m reminded of a much-earlier post of Sady’s about the “ideal” or “pure” life (what I mostly remember is the phrase “pooping tree”) and how it’s not only not possible but not necessarily a great goal. I agree with all those who have said that this site will be much more pointful when it tells us more about what, specifically, to avoid (we can’t all grow our own food, and I do feel it’s important to cover our nether regions, at least in winter) but it would be too bad if s.e.’s points and the ideas that spawned the footprint site got swallowed in a quest for personal purity (I AM NOT ACCUSING ANYONE! I AM TALKING ABOUT THE FUTURE!) rather than an examination of the structures of exploitation, including our participation in them.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  15. Agnes wrote:

    To answer the doubts about the app’s math, the slave footprint wouldn’t be exclusive- if, say, Jordan and I are neighbors and shop at the same stores, buying the same products, there would be 25 people somewhere in the supply chain that leads to each of us. That wouldn’t mean 50 slaves, though, because we wouldn’t have separate supply chains. So it doesn’t seem to me that the math would have to give us Brian’s example of 300% of people.

    Admittedly, I have never taken statistics, nor have I actually had time to go through the app yet, so they could be doing their math entirely wrong.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  16. KJ wrote:

    Whoops. “and more ‘We live in…’”, that would be.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  17. Sara wrote:

    When I lived and was a teacher in Uzbekistan, the cotton issue made me so mad. These students are out in the fields, picking cotton by hand. Every year, some kid falls asleep in the fields and is killed. All are “paid”, although they must pay for their food and for the sheds that somehow qualify as lodging.

    Whenever those cotton commercials come on TV, I think about it. I’m not sure what kind of slavery it is — they are forced into labor, but it is seasonal, and then the kids and conscripted teachers go back to school. I’m wondering how the app qualifies that.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  18. slutego wrote:

    Egads, that application is horrible to work with.
    My total was a whopping 40 slaves, though I was doing up a combined total between myself and my spouse.
    My spouse who is military.
    And has to wear lots of military clothing, hence, LOTS of t-shirts, for example.

    Clothing made up the majority of our footprint.
    T-shirts and underwear, mainly.
    (While I counted everything else, it’s almost completely pre-loved stuff.)
    And this app doesn’t seem to take into account the prison labor that goes into uniforms.

    So, military? You are the overwhelming majority of our slavery footprint. Not including prison labor.
    That’s super-disgusting.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  19. Jane wrote:

    Yeah, KJ. Who cares if the app doesn’t give you a perfectly accurate count of your personal slaves. This isn’t a competition for who has fewer slaves working for them. It’s a metaphor… it’s a consciousness raising tool to demonstrate that slavery exists in many forms around the world and is imbedded within the productive systems of some of the most mundane and widespread consumer goods.

    Even if your final word on the app was “0 slaves,” the marginal value of your personal non-participation in the slavery-based production systems would be something like 0. The action step for this app is to take positive action to intervene in these labor practices. Yeah, boycotts are a great tool, but unless you are a devoting a chunk of your life to campaigning for that mass boycott, don’t be patting yourself on the back for helping. Step it up.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  20. Jordan wrote:

    Cheers Agnes et al. It does actually describe in a bit more detail what the footprint means in the methodology section – which I should have made the effort to read earlier – and it seems to be more in line with that non-exclusive, direct involvement in supply chain concept than the one I had. Its a bit confusing, since terms like “Carbon Footprint” *do* refer at least in theory to a person’s marginal impact, but the figure they’re trying to estimate is not an unreasonable one to think about and discuss.

    Jane,

    “Who cares if the app doesn’t give you a perfectly accurate count of your personal slaves.”

    I care, for two reasons.

    Figures like this can put people on the defensive, especially if they feel mislead about the calculations. Of course that’s largely a symptom of having privilege and not wanting to be confronted with it, but that doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

    Also, to the extent it makes people think “If I buy half as many clothes and hold off getting a new computer, I can reduce slavery substantially”, its bad, because it misdirects people’s good intentions toward an ineffective form of action. People would be better of keeping their goods and donating to an anti-slavery NGO, I imagine, if they want to make a difference.

    I think this thread already demonstrates both of these issues, and surely Tiger Beatdown comments are a more privilege-aware space than most of the wider world that this app is targeted toward changing.

    “This isn’t a competition for who has fewer slaves working for them. It’s a metaphor… it’s a consciousness raising tool to demonstrate that slavery exists”

    I think its successful as a consciousness raising tool – the discussion here is evidence of that. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be more effective through greater transparency.

    For instance the app phrases it as “You have 37 slaves working for You”, which is a high impact statement but I think contributes to the misinterpretation of the number. “37 slaves were involved in producing the goods you consumed in the last year”, or something along those lines, might be less likely to make people sit up and take note, but also less likely to confuse them.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  21. Dikke Stef wrote:

    Thought the Slavery Footprint test was exceptionally done from both a graphics and an information standpoint.

    I must admit it did make me a bit depressed and self loathing even before I finished. Anyone over thirty five will feel old taking this test as they have to cycle up to their age (or at least I did!) I also was a bit embarrassed to describe myself as an XL eater and then add that I own virtually no sports equipment.

    Not that being a slovenly couch potato helped my Slavery Footprint, which was a nauseating 54!

    All in all the test is brilliant but it turns out I am a total shithead.

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  22. Coldsnap wrote:

    “To answer the doubts about the app’s math, the slave footprint wouldn’t be exclusive- if, say, Jordan and I are neighbors and shop at the same stores, buying the same products, there would be 25 people somewhere in the supply chain that leads to each of us. That wouldn’t mean 50 slaves, though, because we wouldn’t have separate supply chains. So it doesn’t seem to me that the math would have to give us Brian’s example of 300% of people.

    Admittedly, I have never taken statistics, nor have I actually had time to go through the app yet, so they could be doing their math entirely wrong.”

    This makes sense to me, or at least what I think you are saying makes sense to me – If I have 27 slaves working for me, and someone else has 27 slaves working for them, at least a few of these slaves might be working for the both of us. I don’t think everyone’s slavery footprint is made up of completely different slaves than everyone else’s. There is probably overlap. I can’t tell if I’m making any sense either.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  23. Other Becky wrote:

    I like Jordan’s take on things. My first reaction, at seeing the number 42, was “But I buy my clothes second-hand! I grew those tomatoes myself! My grandmother left me that necklace! My car is 27 years old, and my computer belongs to my employer! I’m not a bad person!”

    And apparently, the biggest thing driving my number was that I own a lot of underpants. That was a huge surprise. I knew that a lot of lingerie depends on slave labor, but I didn’t realize that plain ol’ underpants do too. (The default assumptions on women’s clothes were weird — 50 dresses and 7 underwear?)

    Off to find information on socially responsible undergarments…

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  24. sarah wrote:

    38 slaves! I was mortified as I figure I don’t have thaaaat much stuff- then I realised although I get a lot of clothes second hand, I still have quite a lot. And I use a lot of products that, while spout the ‘ethical produce’ mantra, the ingredients are most likely mined or collected by slaves.
    I felt this ap was a good wake up call- I honestly didn’t know how far spread the problem was and I figure if it gets through to a few people who make better buying choices then thats better than nothing.

    Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink
  25. Jennifer S. wrote:

    Maybe this is a stupid question, but since some forms of “forced labor” do involve wages is getting fair trade goods an assurance against slavery being used in their production?

    Friday, November 18, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  26. Jennifer S. wrote:

    oops, I meant to quotation mark “wages” and not “forced labor.” Sorry for looking like a d-bag.

    Friday, November 18, 2011 at 8:37 am | Permalink
  27. valerie wrote:

    Very interesting article, although I was surprised that the paragraph stating that 50,000 people are in some form of slavery in the US makes no mention of those incarcerated in our private prison system, working for nothing and generating huge profit….. I clicked on “agriculture” to see if perhaps places like Angola State Penitentiary were mentioned….
    I think that we cannot ignore that private prisons contribute to a new form of slavery and a serious conspiracy to destroy black men, and that they need to be abolished! Any comment?

    Monday, November 21, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink
  28. Jenny wrote:

    Free the Slaves has been misleading:
    http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2009/9/14/free_the_truth_a_response_to_kevin_bales

    and doesn’t even address the problem of capitalism itself:
    http://www.swans.com/library/art15/barker30.html

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 12:09 am | Permalink
  29. Anna wrote:

    Valerie, s.e. has written extensively on the prison system and its forced labour in the past. This link: http://meloukhia.net/tag/prison_labour will lead you to just two of ou articles on the subject. It’s an issue ou highlights with regularity.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  30. Gretchen wrote:

    I quite like the app, but like other commenters, wish it had had more options.
    I work in a shop which only sells fair trade certified goods. I only buy fair trade certified tea, coffee, chocolate, and soap. I also try to buy Australian grown vegetables and meats. And, like others, I often buy secondhand clothes, and boycott certain clothing and shoe brands and stores.

    Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  31. Audry wrote:

    This calculator includes sex work as an indicator (and element of quantification) of slavery.

    I am a sex worker. I am a sex worker by choice. I am a sex worker who is choosing to continue working as a sex worker. Sex work is work.

    Saturday, December 10, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  32. Linds wrote:

    This was quite an eyeopener for me. While I agree that it’s somewhat inaccurate (it doesn’t take into account that I only buy fairtrade coffee, cocoa and local dairy, fruit, meat and veg), it did open my eyes to what I might be endorsing by purchasing electronics and clothing.

    Audry, I agree with you about sex work. Sex workers should not be seen as slaves. But it’s undeniable that sex slavery does occur in the sex industry, even in developed countries. I live in Australia where prostitution is legal and many brothels are owned by crime syndicates who source women from developing countries and bring them here under the guise of offering them education and lodging, but then use them as sex slaves instead. Does this mean prostitution should be outlawed? No. Not in my opinion. Legal prostitution means that the women and men who choose to work in the sex industry can have proper protections like all workers should. But we do have to recognise that if we pay for sex, there is a chance that we are complicit in this slavery. The responsibility of ensuring sex slavery doesn’t happen lies with the police, and with those who use the services offered by brothels.

    Tuesday, December 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm | Permalink