How much of what you own, what you buy and use every day has been manufactured by slaves? Most likely you have no idea, because this is the way the big companies want it to be. Modern slaves are invisible and silenced. Their plight is largely ignored or unrecognised. But there are millions of slaves today, according to some estimates their number rounds up to 30 million! That’s roughly equal to half of the UK population.
The transatlantic slave trade was internationally outlawed in 1808 and we’ve all heard about the American Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery in the US. But the truth is that slavery never ended. It just changed locations and technicalities. Today’s slaves may not be called by that name, officially they might be employees. Yet their freedom and their bodies do not belong to them. Modern slaves are people who are deceived or coerced into a situation they didn’t agree to for someone else’s profit. They are forced to work under the threat of violence for little or no pay and they are prevented from walking away. We will likely never see them, but every day we use items produced by slave labour: clothes, mobile phones, other electronics, sports equipment – the diversity of products made by modern slavery means that we are all implicated.
When we think about slavery we usually imagine Africans forced to work on the cotton plantation in the American South, living in terrible conditions and abused by their masters. We have not yet heard about the bonded labour used for much of Southeast Asia’s shrimping industry, where labourers work up to 20-hour days to peel 40 pounds of shrimp and those who attempt to escape are under constant threat of violence or sexual assault. Islam is a blessing for all mankind and within the divine law revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) were the rights of the slaves: to be clothed and fed the same as their masters, to be protected and treated like brothers. And freeing and giving education to slaves are some of the best good deeds (Bukhari, Al Imran:97). Islam also teaches that it is better to marry a believing slave than a disbelieving free person, and this instruction shows clearly that slaves are fellow humans, not a class of subspecies as they are usually treated. The Islamic approach to slavery is a far cry from the barbaric treatment that slaves are submitted to nowadays, even in Muslim lands.
The countries in which people are most at risk of being enslaved are: Mauretania, with the estimated 20% population enslaved; Haiti, a country severely damaged by earthquakes in which about 1 in 10 women and children are at risk of enforced labour or sex trafficking; Pakistan, where some 4 million poor people become slaves to pay back their debts; India, where countless women and children are abducted from villages and sold as domestic labour; Nepal, with extreme poverty at the roots of its high slavery rates; Moldova, a European country where women and children from disadvantaged families end up as slaves in Russia, Turkey and the UAE; and Benin, ironically one of the first African countries to pass an anti-human trafficking law in 1961.
The people most at risk are those who are the most vulnerable: women and children from poor families. Where do they end up? Virtually everywhere around the world there are people working in forced labour or as sex slaves. Out of them 55% are women and 26% are children. What are they being made to do? They might be forced to work in brick kilns in Pakistan, as some 250 000 boys are, working in extreme conditions and in complete social isolation. They might be weaving carpets in India’s carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh, as some 200 000 children are. In other Indian villages children as young as seven can be busy all day mining mica, an important ingredient of cosmetics used by people all over the world who have no clue where that sparkle come from. In Uzbekistan some 1.4 million children are out of school to work on the cotton fields. Disadvantaged women all around the world are being lured or abducted and sold as sex slaves and domestic labour. And men trying to raise their families from extreme poverty sign up for what seem to be good jobs, but end up working for 20 hours a day on a fishing boat with little or no pay, or as construction workers in the desert, forced to work in the extreme heat with very little pay and no chance to come back home before their contracts end.
How are we all responsible? Nelson Mandela said that: “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” Slavery is highly profitable and it’s unlikely that the criminals involved in it will have a sudden change of heart. According to Walk Free, an organisation started by Bill Gates and Hillary Clinton, modern slavery generates at least $32 billion every year, with some goods made by children as young as 5 years old. Poverty and social discrimination fuel slavery, so those problems need to be addressed jointly in order to achieve sustainable solutions. Organisations involved in tackling the issue, such as Made in a Free World or Anti-Slavery work to inform and protect those at risk from being enslaved and to rescue and rehabilitate the victims, and they ask for donations to aid their projects. These organisations admit that the charity-fueled work that they do won’t be able to end poverty. It is the marketplace that has the most power, consumers can end poverty and slavery.
A recent survey shows that consumers are willing to pay more for goods if they know that purchase of them would positively affect social welfare or environment, you can read it online here. In the UK, when the story of Uzbeki children forced to work on cotton farms supplying cloth for British producers reached the news, the consumers did react by questioning the sourcing of material of their favourite companies. And the big brands took action or at least pledged to do so. Buying power is a huge power, the only problem is that most of us are unaware of the size of the problem. We don’t realise how many of the things we use have been made using the raw materials sourced by slaves or have been manufactured by slaves working in factories at the other end of the world. If we knew, I believe most of us would do something about it.
Further complicating the issue is that many producers don’t have the information on the source of their goods. Many of them very likely would rather not know, but they probably do realise that the way in which they operate can affect the likelihood of slavery being a part of the final product. Demanding from suppliers a large order with a short turnaround time beyond the suppliers’ capacity, negotiating ridiculously low prices and subcontracting factories or workers that are not regulated by the same standards as the supplier could increase the risk of slavery being involved. If we, as customers, demand clarity from products’ companies, they will have to look closer at who is at the bottom of the production chain and in what conditions they work.
So, how many slaves work for you? You can check by filling in the slavery footprint survey here. I got over thirty, astaghfirullah.
Klaudia Khan is a Muslimah trying to make sense of the world around her and taking very seriously the obligation to act as Allah’s khalifa on Earth.