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By Hitting Up Those Post Holiday Sales, Are You Supporting Contemporary Slavery?

Do you support slavery? Don’t be so quick to answer no. Conservative estimates show that in a given year, 27 million people are enslaved across our global society. Yes, our current society! While you may find different forms of contemporary slavery reprehensible, our ties to the ongoing slave trade are often times closer than you think. In this post, David Mayeda questions our consumer culture and its ties to worker exploitation.

I admit, I love my iPad. I utilize it so much and so often that one of my colleagues calls it my best friend. I also own a laptop, a cell phone and a number of other gadgets that I find extremely useful in our contemporary techy society. I’ve also been tempted to hit up those post-holiday sales that emerge every December 26, but thus far I have resisted. My modicum of resistance stems from a moral consciousness. Remember, in a capitalist society, the objective is to profit. Rendering a profit means cutting costs, and this happens most effectively by cutting labour costs. Too often, labour costs are cut entirely by enslaving people.

Kevin Bales – the foremost scholar on contemporary slavery – defines slavery as the total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation. Why is it that those of us in high-income countries can go into stores and pay $5-$10 for clothing items? It is likely because the stores you’re buying those items from, purchased the items for substantially less than the relatively small amount you’re paying. Does $5 even cover the cost of the materials used to make a T-shirt?

Go into any store advertising 50% or 75% off their items, look on the items’ tags, and see where they were made. Do they say made in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand, or another high-income country or do they say made in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, or another low-income, developing, perhaps over-populated country? If you find the latter, there’s a good chance people were under-paid (or not paid at all) in the production process of those items.

Okay, but that’s just clothes. What about that technology thing mentioned earlier? Do you, like me, own a cell phone, a computer, or really any other electronic gadget? Since you’re reading this article online, I’m guessing you’re answering “yes.” Many of the metals that comprise the insides of our computer technology come from minerals in or around the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Do you even know where the DRC is? If not, it is in central Africa, and it is a region of the world that has been ravaged by war and slavery for centuries. Watch this 10-minute video to see how we as technology consumers are tied to slavery in the DRC.

Slavery in Your Pocket: The Congo Connection from Free the Slaves on Vimeo.

To reiterate from the video, at 2:00:

  • “If you pull out your cell phone, if you’re using a laptop, if you’re screwing in a light bulb in your house, there’s a good chance that what’s in your hand right now was in the hand of a slave a little while back. We’re directly tied to the slavery in Eastern Congo through the things that we’re using every day in our lives.”

So why do so few of us care about contemporary slavery? Sociologists have a term called social distance. Social distance is maximized when we don’t feel any connection to someone else, when physical, interpersonal, and emotional ties are dissolved or were never built in the first place. For those enslaved in and around the DRC, our social distance is enormous. Entrapped slaves live in what we consider a remote location, don’t speak our language, are from a different nationality, we never interact with them, etc. Hence, even if we know our consumption may very well be tied to their exploitation, we hardly care or think about it. Instead, we care about that low sale price and/or how getting that item will enhance our social status.

So what can you do to end contemporary slavery? Actually, there are quite a few things, the first of which is to inform yourself. From there, spread the word. Don’t call slavery “human trafficking”; it’s slavery! Join or start a Student Abolitionist Movement chapter at your school. Know how you’re connected to the contemporary slave trade, and push companies to stop buying/selling products made by slaves. Stop, or at least limit, your consumption of products known to contribute to slavery – value human life and dignity more than you value social status built through consumption. Don’t view yourself as an individual. Know you are a global citizen with responsibilities tied to women and men everywhere.

Our happy holidays should not come at the expense of anyone else.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How does the concept of social distance relate to our feelings on violence committed across the globe?
  2. What could we do to reduce the social distance between consumers and the slave labour that manufactures their goods?
  3. In today’s society, we frown very heavily upon slavery from yesteryear. Why does our society care so little about slavery happening right now?
  4. Go into your closet and look at the tags on the back of your clothing items. About what percentage of clothing items can you find that say they were made in a high-income country? How do you feel about what you’ve found, and why?

Suggested further reading:

  • Slavery: A 21st Century Evil
  • Dr Congo – Understanding the Conflict

[All pictures taken by author.]