Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Millions are Enslaved: How Many Work for You?

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, April 30 / 18

Zack Gross

Many of us likely have thought that slavery ended long ago, back in the 1790s or at least after the US Civil War in the 1860s.  However, our federal government – and governments of other developed countries – are currently looking at bringing in legislation that would aim to prevent companies and governments we trade with to carry on or allow “modern slavery”.

Slavery is defined as people, companies and institutions using their power to exploit other people and groups.  In 2016, statistics showed that there were 40 million slaves in our world, about 25 million doing forced labour and another 15 million in forced marriages.  Three-quarters of modern slaves are women and girls.

The “labour sectors” where one finds slaves around the world are in the sex trade (human trafficking), domestic work, the textile industry, agriculture, mining and construction.  Most slaves are found in Africa and Asia, but 167 countries have them, including 6,500 people who qualify as modern slaves in Canada!

The current super-migration taking place around the world is one aspect of how slavery occurs, as many migrants are literally kidnapped and put to unpaid work as they move from the Middle East toward Europe.  Libya is identified as a particularly difficult area, as armed militias grab migrants and enslave them.  The relative position globally of women vs. men is also a cause of slavery as 5 million people, almost entirely women, are forced into the sex industry. 

Another big area of concern is debt bondage where people work off debt with free labour or, very often, their children work off that debt, losing their opportunity for a childhood and education.  Child labour is defined this way – work that deprives children of childhood, education, potential and dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.

A total of 152 million children are said, by the United Nations, to be enslaved in today’s world, about three quarters of them in the agricultural sector, many of them harvesting coffee, cocoa, sugar cane, tobacco, cotton and tropical fruit for our use. Others are involved in backbreaking labour such as brick making and gold mining.

Having recently become more aware this issue, I was directed to a web site Slavery Footprint.  It has a great video and lots of excellent information about the topics of modern slavery and child labour.  It also has a quiz that anyone can fill out in a few minutes that will tell you “how many slaves work for you
.”  Questions in the survey revolve around your lifestyle and consumption, such as your housing, vehicles, clothing, food choices, jewelry, technological devices, sports equipment and accessories, such as shoes.

The message of the survey is that our consumption oriented lifestyle, our relative wealth and our lack of opportunity or willingness to “vote with our dollars” and make ethical purchasing choices, consign others in the world to poverty and slavery.  I was surprised and dismayed to find out that I have more than the average number of slaves working for me, based on others my age and in Manitoba!  Did I answer too honestly?

Canada’s Sub-Committee on International Human Rights, of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, of our Federal Parliament held hearings on Modern Slavery in the fall of 2017, receiving presentations from groups like World Vision and Fairtrade Canada.  A report back to Canadians is due this spring.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) of the United Nations is also working on this issue and has several recommendations, including that there needs to be better tracking of smaller factories and workshops, where much of the exploitation takes place without the authorities’ or consumer’s knowledge.  We also need to offer better safety and social programs to migrants, to women and girls, and to workers in the sectors mentioned in this article.

While legislation can be written and passed, there also needs to be effective enforcement.  California has a state law on modern slavery, and France, the United Kingdom and Australia have brought in regulations, but some of these are thought to be ineffective and need to require verifiable corporate action and concrete progress.

Until we have effective laws, we will always have enslaved children and women working for us!

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s The Marquis Project and now co-ordinates outreach for Fair Trade Manitoba.

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