“Once upon a time, some naughty white people enslaved some alright black people. Then, some good white people made everything better, and we never had slavery again.” That was approximately how my elementary school explained the Civil War. Secondary and post-secondary school has added some moral ambiguity into the mix, but the basic story remains the same.
Our education system and our media push slavery into the past, occasionally spicing it up with a white savior narrative for added insult. However, slavery is not something that only happened once. Westerners still rely on slaves—perhaps more than we once did—and the issue extends to people of all countries and races. By outsourcing it, we’ve just made slavery much easier to ignore.
The world runs on slavery. Just like before the Civil War, humans force other humans to work by means of the fear of death. Almost every object in the life of a privileged kid like me has passed through the hands of a slave.
My MacBook is full of metals and minerals making up the little chips and wires. While some came from legitimate sources that pay their workers, others did not, and between mining, processing and transport, the conflict minerals become untraceable to both buyer and seller.
The problem extends far past hardware. Mica is a mineral that makes up the little sparkles in cosmetics. My Urban Decay lipstick is full of it, and it’s also an inactive ingredient in my Crest toothpaste. According to slaveryfootprint.org, most mica comes out of India, and, like the laptop example, it’s hard to trace.
Both legal and illegal mica-mining operations are hard on workers, but the illegal ones rely on child labor. Even if they’re drawing a wage, child laborers are always slaves, just not in name.
Modern slaves often occupy the gray space between legitimate work and full-blown forced labor. The sweatshop workers who made my shoes are technically free. They can choose between having no work and no opportunities, or having limited opportunities and work that leaves them vulnerable to injury and violence.
It’s an unfair choice, but a company does control them and acknowledge that they exist. Legislation regarding overseas workers would affect them. The children mining mica don’t officially exist. No amount of petitioning the government for labor reform would help them.
Outsourcing is not evil in and of itself. It’s important that all countries develop employment opportunities, and mega-corporations provide quick ways of doing just that. The problem arises when these corporations create nothing but menial labor. They’re only causing harm rather than building an economic structure.
Now, I could argue that slavery is a necessary evil of capitalism. In the United States, we started out using slaves to fuel industry, moved to cheap labor and eventually began enforcing minimum wage and safety standards.
However, this raised the cost of domestic labor, so industries cut corners by using less expensive and less ethical labor. The solution to slavery does not lie in policy and law. We, as the consumers, need to change.
Despite the ethics, many consumers don’t want to pay the extra money that slave- and sweatshop-free goods cost, or it’s too much hassle to even find them. I’ve heard of fair trade coffee, but never of fair trade toothpaste. Maybe you’re a “poor college student,” or you work a minimum wage job. Whatever your situation, you think you can’t afford to worry about the ethics of your grocery list.
But you can. Everyone at Lawrence has an insane amount of privilege. We have places to sleep, food to eat and no one beats us half to death if we’re late to class or work. If you’re not sitting in a pit, scraping crystals out of the earth to earn pennies each day, then you do not have an excuse to enable slave labor.
There is nothing separating them from us. Westerners wear no extra coat of human decency. Nothing except some trick of geography keeps us out of slavery. Considering our culture’s rhetoric about slavery, we dehumanize ourselves by using them.
If you need a selfish reason to care about modern slavery, remember that our history books remember the slavers as the losers.