On New Year’s Day, a New York Times editorial headline by Louis P. Masur caught my attention: “How Many Slaves are Working for You?” That’s a pretty charged question. Anyone who grew up with Southern White Guilt knows how it can stop you in your tracks. It certainly did, and I am a person who spends a lot of time thinking about labor conditions in the supply chain.
Masur began by discussing the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation as a vehicle to explore the premise of modern-day slavery and introduce SlaveryFootPrint.org, a website devoted to raising awareness about forced labor conditions. The site includes a survey to establish how many slaves work to support our personal lifestyles; it is illuminating. Imagine my surprise (and incredible guilt and frustration) to be informed that our household requires 21 slaves to maintain. Here is the breakdown of my survey:
I live in North Carolina and am childless in my early 30s. The items associated with childrearing did not apply to me so I moved on to the next page addressing one’s physical residence. We have a car, a home office, a kitchen, two bathrooms and two bedrooms. Off to the side was an additional break-out menu to list the number of light bulbs, bed frames, high-end cookware, ball point pens, etc., in the house.
This is where I started wishing for a comment box. It should come as no surprise that Jock, “the Full Belly Guy,” made most furniture in our house, so an awful lot of it looks like that which he designed for Philippine school rooms. We don’t buy high-end cookware (another item listed), and as regular readers of this column know, I will go to incredible lengths to find made-in-the-USA products—which did not get taken into account here.
Next came food. Of course, Jock is a big coffee drinker, but he drinks fair-trade and organic, which also was not a survey option. Of the foods listed, there was no place for local seafood or homegrown vegetables—both of which are staples of our summer diets. Yes, perhaps at some restaurants the shrimp is caught and peeled in Vietnam, but anything that comes in the house is locally caught. And, sure, tomatoes have been hot topics in labor disputes recently, but the only tomatoes we have had at home come from the front garden—because, come on, nothing tastes the same as a homegrown tomato! Jock, however, has a penchant for Newman’s Own spaghetti sauce and that certainly uses the cheapest tomatoes available.
The medicine-cabinet section came as the biggest shocker. I think we all understand the amount of clothing made in sweat shops, but makeup? Since neither Jock nor I wear it, we didn’t score high in this section. Basically, we had a bottle of aspirin, some shampoo, a hairbrush, razor, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, dental floss and a first-aid kit. The impact of the makeup industry on indentured children is shocking and largely unexplored. Possibly because if we really began discussing what is involved in the manufacturing of cosmetics—both ingredients and labor conditions—we could spark enough outrage to actually topple the industry.
After the “Blood Diamond” controversy over the last few years, it was far from surprising to see jewelry included. Since all my jewelry was either stolen during house robberies or sold last year to raise money to pay debts—with the exception of one broach that Jock gave me, which has deep sentimental value—we have no jewelry in the house to count. But, the world of mining precious metals and minerals is successful because of absurdly inflated prices in tightly controlled markets, which allow for incredible profit margins largely by using forced labor in terrifyingly dangerous conditions. Somehow, we think of diamond rings as symbols of love?
No surprise to anyone I picked the “Technophobe” tab under electronics. I was really pleased that the impact of mining for Colton—which is used in most of our electronics—got prominent billing in the survey. It never ceases to amaze me that people try and tell me e-readers are environmentally conscious. The damage of Colton mining to the environment and the people in forced servitude, who bring up these minerals, wreaks much greater destruction than printing on recycled paper. The pull-out quote from the website was peculiarly appropriate:
“Coltan is an effective capacitor found in electronics. A U.S. State Department official was interviewed about Coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He pointed to the reporter’s smartphone and said, ‘The likelihood that one of these was not touched by a slave is pretty low.’”
I think the closet section offered a true reminder that Jock and I don’t live normal middle-class lives. For example, I own two pairs of shoes: flip flops and a pair made by a family of cobblers in California. Apparently, 24 is an average number of pairs of shoes for American women. Wow! Jock destroys shoes at an incredible rate and, again, owns one pair at a time, which he uses until they fall apart.
Each part of the survey peppered in related statistics about forced labor around the world. Designed to be an awareness-building tool, I happen to think it’s pretty effective. By no means am I not belittling the historic experience of slavery in this country; still, if we want to honor the lessons of the abolitionist movement, which is a significant and integral part of our national consciousness, the best way is to apply it to people in bondage today.
So, in 2013, ask for fair-trade items, made-in-the-USA products, and, please, not only ask questions about labor practices but communicate your decision-making process to the companies you choose to support. Let them know you are paying attention and choosing to give them money or not. It is slow, but it can make a difference. Every part of our lives offers an opportunity to make an impact. As you go through your day, ask yourself how much pain and suffering you are willing to endure for a low-priced gadget?