How Many Slaves Are Working for You? (Part 1)

I have been watching a lot of YouTube videos lately by people who have built certain parts of their lives (not to mention a social media following) around saving money. I’ve watched tiny home dwellers, off-grid hippies, no-waste vegan families, and even extreme budgeters.

But something has been weighing heavily on me for a few months now. I want to be a good steward of my money – and part of that is tied up in how much I spend – but I believe so much more of it is tied up in how (or, more specifically, where) I spend.

The organization Slavery Footprint has an online quiz to help us gain some perspective about the link between our everyday purchases and forced labor (aka modern slavery). According to the quiz, I have 27 slaves working for me. How many are working for you?

Modern Slavery & Horrific Working Conditions

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an estimated 25 million people are trapped in forced (read: slave) labor – of which 4 million are under the age of 17. Additionally, of the 152 million children working worldwide, 73 million are working in hazardous conditions that by nature “can have adverse effects on their health, safety, and moral development.”

Here is a shortlist of items in the United States that are known to have been produced using either forced or child labor (for a complete list, click here):

  • Bananas (Belize, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Philippines)
  • Broccoli (Guatemala)
  • Carpets (Afghanistan, India, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan)
  • Christmas Decorations (China)
  • Cocoa (Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone)
  • Coffee (Colombia, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Dominican Republic, 12 other countries)
  • Cotton (Argentina, Azerbaijan, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, China, 12 other countries)
  • Textiles/Embellished (India, Nepal)
  • Garments (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh)
  • Sugarcane (Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, Columbia, 13 other countries)
  • Tea (Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Vietnam)
  • Texitles / Other (Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Bangladesh)
  • Thread / Yarn (India)
  • Toys (China)

Of those not trapped in labor trafficking, many work in dangerous conditions for little pay. In 2013, a factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,000 people. Workers were encouraged to continue showing up for work although the building was not safe. The owner was arrested, but after 4 years, still has yet to be sentenced.

What does this have to do with us? According to an ABC News article:

The April 2013 collapse highlighted the grim conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry, which earns more than $US25 billion ($31.4 billion) a year from exports, mainly to the United States and Europe.

Low wages in the South Asian country have led global brands and retailers to prefer Bangladesh over China, the world’s leading apparel exporter.

Among the primary U.S. companies to sell items made in this factory? The Children’s Place, J.C. Penny, and Walmart.

Two Economic Principals:

Economic Principal #1: TANSTAAFL.

The TANSTAAFL concept is a byproduct of the economic fact that resources are scarce and the consumption of them in a capital market society includes competition from others who also want to partake in those goods and services. Thus, goods and service providers of all types will require some type of cost (Investopedia).

What this means: When you get a deal, someone else is always making up the difference.

Tragically, in more cases that we’d like to admit, that “someone else” is a severely underpaid man or woman whose quality of life and health are threatened by the work they do. Worse, millions of people – including children as young as 5 years old – are sold, coerced, or forced into making the cheap sh*t we love to buy (pardon my French).

Remember that next time you think that $4.88 t-shirt is a great deal.

Economic Principal #2: If you keep buying, they will keep supplying.

Okay, this is not a real thing. But it’s still true. There are TONS of things that no one makes anymore for the simple reason that people chose to buy something else instead. Don’t believe me? Here is a list.

This is not where I tell you to stop buying from retailers that support unfair or slave labor because it will stop evil people from exploiting others. It would take major changes on a global scale to make that happen. And there are hundreds of amazing organizations working to make it happen.

You or I alone can’t change the reality of dangerous working conditions, unfair wages, and labor trafficking. But we can stop throwing our money at it. Yes, it makes a difference (albeit a very tiny difference). But honestly? It’s just the right thing to do.

We can join all the hashtag movements we want, but at the end of the day, our purchasing decisions will always drown out the sound of our words.

Is Change Even Possible?

The products derived from unfair, dangerous, or slave labor are pervasive in our economy. I keep coming back to this question: Is it even possible to avoid buying things that are connected to slave and unfair labor in one way or another? And, if it is possible, can it be done without breaking the bank?

I want to believe that it is.

If this blog is about living life on purpose, then one of the most important things I can blog about is buying on purpose. If we knew our local grocery store employees were forced to work there without pay, we wouldn’t still shop there. Why would we still buy products we know are made by people who are suffering just to make them?

Over the next several months, my husband and I will begin to make changes, and as we do, I will continue this blog series, providing more information and progress reports as to what changes we are making and how we are making them. I will also provide alternative options for everyday purchases that are both affordable and ethical. Consider joining me in making some changes in your life to stop supporting unethical and slave labor practices. Let’s live – and shop – on purpose.

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash

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