INTERVIEW: The Fight To End Modern Slavery Worldwide
Why we’re covering this: No one should live in slavery — and it’s important to do all we can to put an end to the awful practice.
Slavery is the most heinous scourge of our civilization. The organization Free The Slaves put on an outstanding panel at this year’s South By Southwest; for all the people who couldn’t make it to Austin this year, we sat down with spokesperson Terry FitzPatrick, the communications director of Free The Slaves, and asked him what modern slavery looks like.
Unicorn Booty: When Americans think of slavery, our own history most comes to mind —how close is that to modern slavery and what forms does modern American slavery take?
Terry FitzPatrick: Americans are taught in school that slavery ended with the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. That’s not accurate. America outlawed slavery, but didn’t end it. There are more people enslaved around the world today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1800s.
They toil today inside the U.S. where slave labor has always been concentrated, industries that rely on cheap physical labor: On farms, at construction sites, on janitorial and landscaping crews, in restaurant kitchens and sewing factories, and even in private homes as domestic servants. And, of course, in brothels, strip clubs and massage parlors. You can learn more in the Slavery Today section of our website.
With so many consumer products being created with slave labor — is it possible to live a slavery-free life in America, or in a capitalist society at all?
It is possible, but it’s not easy. Buying certified fair trade goods really helps. And if you have a choice, it’s good to steer your retirement savings and other investments to funds that screen companies for human rights violations along with environmental sustainability and other corporate social responsibility factors.
Ultimately, we must cleanse our entire economy of slavery so consumers and investors don’t have to do this kind of homework. That’s why we support passage of the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, currently pending in Congress.
Some Americans might not care that their products are the product of slave labor, cynically worrying about keeping prices low or not caring about “immigrant labor.” How do we convince these types that slavery is still worth eradicating?
There was a time when people argued that slavery was morally acceptable and economically necessary. Fortunately, those days are over. Every faith condemns it and every country has banned it.
It’s a mistake to think that ending slavery would increase prices. Globally, it’s estimated by the U.N. International Labor Organization that slavery generates $150 billion per year in illicit profits, making it one of the most lucrative crimes on Earth. However, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the total world economy, which is more than $75 trillion a year. Some prices might be deflated slightly by slave labor, but overall slavery does not benefit consumers. It benefits criminals. They cheat their workers, and they do not pass the savings on to you.
What are the strongest economic arguments for ending slavery to business leaders whose companies rely on slave labor? How can we best convince them to take on the added cost of paying a living wage?
Human rights compliance is the cutting edge of international trade law, and companies that recognize this will do better in the globalized economy. The United Kingdom has already passed corporate due diligence and disclosure rules for slavery, and the European Union is working on specific standards for goods made with slavery-tainted metals from the conflict zones of central Africa.
In America, the Obama administration has ordered all federal procurement to be slavery-free, which means the world’s largest consumer of goods and services is working to avoid companies that cannot certify that their products aren’t made by slaves or with slavery-tainted components or raw materials. Congress is considering a slavery disclosure rule for all large publicly held companies in the U.S.
This is the wave of the future. Forward-thinking corporations already recognize this. You can learn more on our Slavery Free Commerce webpage.
Do you consider the working poor — people paid, but not enough to live on, for their work, despite holding down multiple, sometimes full-time, jobs — to be slaves?
There are specific legal and sociological conditions that qualify as human trafficking or modern slavery. A person must be forced to work without pay beyond the barest of subsistence to keep them alive, and they must be under the total control of the slaveholder so that they cannot walk away. Slaves are always in dirty, dangerous and dehumanizing jobs – that is a key part of the brutal exploitation they endure.
But it’s the fact that they were either tricked or forced into those jobs — and the fact that they are kept in place by violence and have lost their freedom to quit those jobs — that makes it slavery. Our video “What Does Slavery Look Like Today” paints the picture.
In communities around the world that are at-risk for slavery, what steps can we take to save people from being taken as slaves? And what can average citizens do to fight slavery?
Ultimately, slavery is the result of vulnerability. Free the Slaves focuses on helping people overcome these vulnerabilities so they aren’t easy prey for traffickers. It goes beyond poverty. Most people who fall into slavery are poor, but not all poor people fall into slavery. It also involves a lack of access to affordable health care, credit, police protection, education and economic development. Traffickers know this, so they target communities facing these hardships.
We work with communities to slavery-proof entire villages. That prevents future cases of slavery, and ensures that when someone breaks free they stay free and nobody else takes their place in slavery. You can read about our detailed community-empowerment strategy to fight slavery here, and see our animated video that explains this four-step model.