Monday, July 06, 2009

Slavery and the Products We Buy

Many of the products we buy and use daily were made with slave labor or involved slave labor during some part of their manufacturing. The chocolate industry has received considerable attention lately for its use of slave labor . A 2000 US State Department report concluded that in recent years approximately 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 have been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee and cocoa plantations annually in the Ivory Coast alone.

The RugMark Foundation started in 1994 to address the use of forced child labor in the rug industry. According to RugMark, Child labor is a crime committed against nearly 220 million children, or one in every seven, ages 5 to 17, around the world. The RugMark Foundation works to end child labor and provide educational alternatives for children, and the Foundation also acknowledges that many of the children are in situations of forced labor, via debt bondage, abuse, or some other method used to enslave. According to UNICEF, 200,000 children are trafficked yearly in West and Central Africa. Cocoa, coffee, clothing, electronics, jewelry, and many other products are tainted by slavery.

These facts make me feel a combination of guilty and helpless at times. Even when I give Human Trafficking 101 presentations to college classes, I know that the computer I am using for the PowerPoint presentation might have been made with slave labor. When preparing for an anti-trafficking conference, the student group I was involved with struggled to find conference materials and food that we knew hadn't been made with slave labor. Even when I am consciously thinking about and working to combat human trafficking, I still struggle with not supporting slavery.

At other times, though, I find this information to be extremely motivating. I may not be able to fight human trafficking alone, but I can make changes in my consumption habits that can make important change. Of course, one person alone changing her/his habits wont make a lot of difference, but collectively we can have a huge impact.

Media, Pennsylvania became a Fair Trade town, starting this process in 2005. According to their site, "In its two years as a Fair Trade town, Media has already inspired nine other towns in the US to follow suit. Together we are raising awareness of how the simple purchase of Fair Trade products can address poverty in the developing world." While fighting human trafficking is not mentioned, purchasing goods that were not made with slave labor and supporting other economic opportunities for people is a step towards ending slavery.

I was recently involved in the start of a similar project in Columbia, MO. The Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalitions Policy and Prevention Committee teamed up with a local fair trade store to start a Slave-Free Stores campaign, to raise awareness about slavery and how it impacts our lives, and to encourage more stores to work to become slave free. The campaign is in its early stages, but I am excited to see how it progresses. We created two different levels, one for stores that sell only slave-free products, and one for stores that sell some products that were not made with slave labor, since few stores will be eligible for the first group at the beginning (though the Coalition is encouraging stores to go slave free by 2020).

The first level: We Sell Some Slave-Free Products For businesses that are committed to offering slave-free goods. Businesses at this level sell some products that they know were produced without slave labor or exploitation, and plan to continue to work towards becoming entirely slave-free. Second level: We Sell Only Slave-Free Products For businesses that are completely committed to being slave-free. Businesses at this level only sell products that they know were produced without slave labor or exploitation. Participating stores will display the decal shown at the top of this post.

I have heard arguments that if we simply stop purchasing goods that were made in sweatshops or other exploited conditions, we will actual worsen the situation of workers who will now be without any source of income. While I do not completely buy this argument, it is important to be aware that Fair Trade is not a panacea, and efforts to buy slave-free products and buy local can have unintended consequences.

At the same time, using our money to support humane, livable-wage, sustainable, and non-exploitative labor is a vital step in fighting slavery. As long as we keep the demand for slavery up, human trafficking will continue.

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