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.