Many are opposed to slavery in principle, but it won’t end until we leverage our collective powers.
xploiting vulnerability. That’s what fascinated me when I was a professional mixed martial arts fighter. I’d train for hours each day in an attempt to better capitalize on my opponent’s weakness. Did they keep all their weight on their lead leg? Good. I’d work on taking it out with punishing leg kicks. Were they known for blazing starts but weak final rounds? Good. I’d work on taking them to the deep rounds to see if they could swim. But seeing vulnerability exploited—in the real world and when the whole of a person’s life is on the line—is fascinating fused with infuriating, and it’s at the heart of what fuels my fight as an anti-slavery activist.
Because even great organizations can have their biases and agendas, I traveled as an independent researcher to Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, and all throughout the U.S. in an attempt to better understand the complexity of modern slavery. Over the years I’ve found two basic questions continue to resurface:
- What conditions cause one person to enslave another?
- What conditions cause a person to be enslaved?
Slavery is often embedded into the welcome mat on our porch. It may be the blade in the blender with which we make our breakfast smoothie. We’ve almost certainly ingested the imperceptible grime of it if we’ve had cocoa or shrimp or coffee. Do we track each stock that we as individuals (or the companies we work for) have investments in? No, I don’t mean track the numbers. I mean do we find ways to track the supply chain to see if the company is built on the backs of slaves? Why would we? Times are tough, the middle class continues to feel the brunt of it, and to do so may very well be working to unravel something that we are directly and indirectly benefitting from.
Somewhere inside each of us we know that there’s a cost when profit and growth are the only priorities. And many of us are fully aware that it’s a brutal human cost. But it’s so far away, and we’re working overtime anytime it’s available and in some ways we ourselves are a hospital trip away from dipping below the poverty line. Should slavery still piss us off despite our own struggles? You’re damn right it should. In fact, our own experience with struggle can tether us to wanting to eradicate the struggles of others.
The Illusion of Separation
We are all global citizens. I don’t mean this in the kumbaya “We are all one” kind of way. I don’t even mean this in the ideological sense that posits our need to strip away Nationalism and replace it with Globalism. I mean we are—every day of our lives—using products, services, and ideas that were developed, created, and shipped from some place, town, city, state, country, and continent other than the one we typically identify as belonging to. For example, the purchase of shrimp at a Costco in Pottstown, Pennsylvania impacts Burmese and Cambodian men in Thailand who were bought and sold like animals and who may have seen or experienced regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings.
I’ve heard people say that humans simply have not had the time to biologically evolve to globalization, to the pressing need to relate empathically with people we may never meet. While there may be some truth to that, I tend to believe, as I wrote at Fiction Week:
“Three or four can’t speak / like a forehead crease.”
That is, we tend to care far more when we meet or even read about someone like Nadu, a 13-year-old disabled boy who was routinely stuffed into a nondescript van and allowed to see the light of day only when someone paid the driver to have sex with him, than we care when we read that there are 29.8 million people living as modern slaves.
No, not you nor my aunt nor our forefathers “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.” Neither you nor I achieved anything on our own. We’re part of an infinitely and intricately interconnected web. The fight against slavery first and foremost demands our recognition of this.
“Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is not free, all are not free.”
—President John F. Kennedy, 1963, “I Am a Berliner”
But how do we make practical use of recognition? I asked this question to Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organization.
“If you’re not careful it can lead to a holier than thou attitude,” he said. “That doesn’t work too well. Once we recognize the complexity of this problem we must remember that line so pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement: It’s ‘We shall overcome,’ not ‘Me shall overcome.’”
“Okay,” I said. “If we’ve got the recognition and the humble attitude, then what?”
“Then the solution to slavery is a political challenge. Without clear-sidedness on the political question… the wide question of slavery will not be addressed.”
“So how can we the people leverage our powers to create political change?” I asked.
“By continuing to talk about this issue, by writing letters, by wielding our consumer power, by supporting on-the-ground groups who are doing great work. We must remember that addressing the issue of slavery means addressing vested interests.
“Let me ask you this,” he said: What political leader would be willing to tear their country apart for the sake of making it better, for the sake of ending modern slavery?”
Pause. I racked my brain. I had nothing.
“Like Abraham Lincoln was willing to do,” he added.
Another pause. President Obama? I thought to myself. I thought about the people of Chittagong, Bangladesh and how upset they were that he didn’t help curb the tragedies going on in the shipbreaking industry. Then I remembered the time he went on a national tour and praised Costco at each stop.
“Damn. Vested interests,” I said.
Our conversation quickly veered into other areas, but the madness that happened in my mind during those brief pauses has stuck with me. Though I’ve been in the anti-slavery movement for years now I had never thought of it in quite that way. Who is willing to disrupt the entire stock market to ensure that the ever-growing 401(k) accounts and emerging markets we invest in are free of slavery? Who is willing to tackle a chain like Costco, a company that gets consumers goods for cheap and has been praised for the way it treats its workers? Lincoln wasn’t an outright abolitionist during his time, but his views evolved during his presidency. It was his moral and economic opposition to slavery (what is desperately needed from our leaders today) that gave rise to the 13th Amendment.
Many of the bills that have received deserved attention—most recently Shandra Woworuntu’s story and her passionate plea to pass the Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination Act of 2013 (FORTE)—have come as a result of pressure from the public sector. Modern slavery shouldn’t make us just shrug our shoulders. It shouldn’t make us just feel sad. It should stir a fire inside of us so that we keep wielding our consumer power and continue working to elevate the voices of survivors so they can finally be heard.
I’ve been angry ever since I saw 6-year-old boys in Northern Thailand who all had HIV as a result of being passed around as sex slaves. And I have no problem admitting that anger serves to fuel my fight year after year. This isn’t the world I want and it’s not the world I want to leave behind.
Aidan told us to 1) keep talking about the issue, 2) write letters, 3) wield our consumer power, and 4) support on-the-ground groups doing great work. Here’s how to take those from suggestions to actions:
- Ask your church (or a church in your area) if they can get their congregation more involved in the fight to end modern slavery. If you aren’t sure how to do this, check out Pastor Eddie Byun’s book, Justice Awakening: How You and Your Church Can Help End Human Trafficking. It has quickly become the go-to manual on this topic.
- Would you rather learn more from the comfort of your computer before going public with your activism? Then join the Human Trafficking community on Google+. Articles are posted daily and you’ll be knowledgeable on this issue in no time.
- Write letters to your local politicians and ask them what they are doing to end modern slavery in your city/state. This article, “How To Write Your Congressman,” offers solid tips for how to hone your craft and get your letter(s) into the right hands.
- Begin wielding your consumer power the next time you go to the grocery store. Before you head out look up your favorite brand of coffee on the Free2Work index. And while you’re at it, check to see what the Food Empowerment Project says about your favorite brands of cocoa and chocolate.
Before we ended the call Aidan said, “That one quote from Truman always comes to mind when I think of this battle…”
“Which one?” I asked.
“’It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’”
Let’s work to end this together, shall we?
For more information on Slavery Today, please visit their website.