How many slaves work for you?
My husband and I, despite being very different from each other, enjoy watching some TV shows together. We have that kind of commitment that makes one remind the other about a new season or the time the show is about to start.
One of these shows is Finding your Roots, presented by the academic Harvard historian, Henry Louis Gates Jr.. In this show, some celebrities are invited to learn more about their ancestors, after the crew searches their “roots” through archives, DNA and interviews. The amount of information and past stories gathered is always stunning.
Finding Your Roots is also ethnically pretty balanced and includes white, black, native, and “latino” descendants. The unveiling of what their ancestors went through in order to survive (such as migration, famine, wars) is very strong and always emotional. We learn about history, about curiosities of an ordinary life in some specific era, habits, culture… sometimes things we never would imagine. It is, in fact, a very interesting show.
The worst part, husband and I agree on that, is when the celebrities who have their family history being told, discover that a great-grandfather or a great-great-grandmother or great-aunt was a slave. Even worse is when the information sought shockingly suggests that the descendants of that woman were a “result” of rape. In an interview about his own roots, Gates explains that the average African-American is 24 percent European. He also states that “most DNA companies in the United States will tell you that they have never tested an African-American who is 100 percent from sub-Saharan Africa”. Yep. I feel that the crew of the program tries to make this information somehow palatable, but I also pay attention to the range of emotions the celebrities reveal through facial expressions. It is not easy to imagine something like this happening to one of ours, so, some cry, others get very sad and angry. We can see the sadness in their faces, in their eyes looking blank, or brimming with tears just trying to imagine the situation, the facts, the life lived by the ancestor.
In other episodes, some of the celebrities find out that their ancestor was a violent invader or looter, and very often a slave owner. Painful news for someone who is finding out these things now, of course. Even when they try to contemplate this piece of news inserted in a context different from nowadays. Just the thought of making another human being less than human, work by force, and deny them the minimum of human dignity, makes any person very sad and outraged.
But if this type of information about our past, a time that we can’t do anything about, provokes this kind of reaction (I imagine how many people like me cry when they watch these episodes), what would happen if we learned that similar situations are happening just now?
The organization End Slavery Now estimates that 21 to 45 million people in the world are trapped in some form of slavery today. As horrible as it may be to admit, there are clearly people who still enslave other people in many different ways for their own profit. From sex trafficking to child labor, to bonded or forced labor, slavery is maintained mainly because there is a type of market that exists and needs to keep running.
Generally, it starts with human trafficking, which according to the United Nations is
“the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation the manufacture of some consuming products”.
You are probably now thinking this text is a little bit crazy because it starts asking you how many slaves work for you. And you are not a person that does anything that is mentioned in the quote above, right? The keywords here are market, manufacture, and consumer products.
Slavery nowadays may not be as obvious as driving to our uncle’s farm and finding people working on the plantation or serving our tea on the back deck of the house. But paying detailed attention to the objects that are around you now would give a hint of how slavery still exists. Some examples:
- Do you know how your smartphone is made and which components are needed?
- Do you know where the cotton that is now part of your garment was harvested?
- Do you know who picked the nuts you are snacking on?
Data from the Walk Free organization establishes that today we have more slaves than at any other time in history. Shocking? Some of them are now working in very bad conditions to supply many products we consume.
If you want to have a close look at how your consumption habits are very linked to these kinds of activities you can take the survey here: http://slaveryfootprint.org/. You are going to discover, based on an approximation of your consumption profile, how many slaves are working for you today.
So, we can take some time to let this information sink in and then decide if we are going to keep pretending this is something of the past or if we are going to act to change it. How? Here I bring some suggestions that you could apply in your routine:
1 Gather more information. I have some websites listed down here and you can find more data on reliable websites;
2 Get to know the companies who make the products you consume and research how they source the raw material. Here you can find more information: https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/
3 Buy less. Think twice before you buy something. Are you sure you need a second pair of red boots? If the answer is yes, then go back to number two and choose wisely;
4 Buy second-hand products. Don’t you think we already have a lot of stuff in the world? This is going to help the environment and to diminish slavery;
5 Avoid fast fashion. Prefer classical pieces that won’t go out of fashion easily and will last years;
6 Donate to organizations doing the difficult work to expose unethical companies and rescue enslaved people;
7 Advocate and ask the companies you buy from how they are doing the backtracking of their resources;
8 Spread this information. Talk to people around you. This simple action can make others think better about their consumption habits. You are just starting a good chain of awareness;
9 If you have a business and want to make sure your sources are working ethically, this benchmark survey can help: https://www.walkfree.org/resources/modern-slavery-benchmarking-tool/.
Finding Your Roots is a very good show that brings knowledge of history to the present even though getting to know the details of a life in slavery in the past can make anyone feel sad or powerless. The question that keeps popping up is: how have human beings been able to commit such atrocities? But the worst is to know this is a very present form of exploitation in our society today and it has roots strongly attached to our consumption habits. It is up to us, little by little, to pull this “weed” from human history forever.
If you want to know more:
Transparent Ethical Sourcing | Frdm
FRDM offers supply chain management of human rights and environmental risks along with Modern Slavery Act compliance…
There are more slaves now than any time in human history
A report published Tuesday highlighting the scourge of modern-day slavery paints a stark picture. "We now have the…
Made In A Free World
Made In A Free World is a charity organization working with people like you to end slavery and child labor.
Acknowledgments: this piece of writing was reviewed by Alexandra Barros. Thank you always, Alex!