The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”.
Half a century has passed since this principle was set black on white; nevertheless, the fight against slavery is not finished yet. Modern slavery is an international crime, affecting 29.8 million people around the world according to the Global Slavery Index. In our contemporary world slavery doesn’t necessarily take the form of chains, but it is present in many forms such as human trafficking, forced labor, servile marriages, slavery-like practices and prostitution. By definition, slavery is the control of one person over another through violence or threats of violence, depriving them of their freedom for the purpose of exploitation.
The biggest problem with modern slavery is that it is not always a self-evident crime and it often remains hidden or concealed behind opaque power relations. Nevertheless, it is a reality that plays a much bigger role in our lives than what we would think. Human trafficking crosses all borders and products of exploited slaves flow into the global supply chains, into local shops and ultimately into our homes.
Have you ever wondered what is behind the barcode of what you just bought?
Almost anything we buy has been treated, assembled or packaged by people in different parts of the world, who are outsourced by bigger firms, which ultimately put their label on the finished product. In many cases, when we go back down the line of production to observe where and how each component was produced, we can find traces of exploitation, low pays and sweatshop conditions. Organizations such as Free2Work look into the production phases of hundreds of companies from all sectors and rank them based on their efforts to address slavery.
Let’s pick a sector we are all familiar with: the apparel industry. For example, think of the last time you went into a shop and bought a t-shirt. It does not matter if you were in Forever 21, Lacoste or Abercrombie, nor the price tag that was attached to it; what matters is that the t-shirt you bought was a product of some sort of slavery-type working conditions. According to Free2Work, these three companies score D or F on a scale that measures the extent to which companies trace their suppliers and establish systems to prevent or address modern slavery. These companies did not monitor the origins of their materials nor the conditions in which they were supplied at all levels of production, from the treatment of the cotton to the manufacturing level. At the cut-make-trim level for example, two countries among the top-six textile exporters in the world are known to use child and/or forced labor: India and China.
Modern slavery is less visible than it used to be in the XIXth century and therefore it is even harder to fight. Modern slavery and exploitation hide in the cotton fibers of our t-shirts, in the coffee grains we use to make our morning espresso and in the smart phones we keep in our pockets.
What we can do to help is to be conscious consumers and always look for the story behind the barcode.