The Common Good

Modern Slavery, Modern Abolitionists

Two hundred years after slavery was declared illegal in Great Britain, and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, an estimated 27 million people remain enslaved around the world. And most people remain unaware of this reality.

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Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Labor released a report documenting goods on the U.S. market that had been produced by child and/or forced labor. The report highlighted 122 goods in 58 countries, and confirmed what many in the anti-human trafficking movement already know -- that goods tainted by child and/or forced labor are commonly found in American homes.

Our chocolate contains cocoa harvested by slave labor on farms in the Ivory Coast; our clothing contains cotton grown with slave labor in Egypt, Brazil, and Uzbekistan; enslaved Haitian workers harvest sugarcane in the Dominican Republic, which is the largest exporter of sugar to the U.S.; our cell phones, laptops, and many other electronics require tantalum, known in its ore form as coltan, a mineral that poor farmers are forced to mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As Kevin Bales, founder of the anti-trafficking organization Free the Slaves, writes:

Every one of us, every day, touches, wears, and eats products tainted with slavery. Slave-made goods and commodities are everywhere in our lives but, paradoxically, in small proportions. The volume is unacceptable but rarely critical to our national economy or quality of life. (The Slave Next Door, 137)

Yet it is also true that, as Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis wrote in the foreword to the recently-released report:

Most Americans and most consumers in the world market would not choose to purchase goods known to be produced by exploited children or forced laborers ­ at any price. Likewise, most American companies would prefer that their global suppliers respect workers' and children's fundamental rights and provide their employees with working conditions that meet acceptable local standards.

Let's consider this equation. First, every one of us is complicit in buying and using slave-made products. Second, no one would knowingly choose to buy or use slave-made products. The conclusion, it would seem, is that the first step toward slave-free products and bringing an end to human trafficking and modern-day slavery, including child labor and forced labor, is to know, and to tell others.

As Christians, we have a theological framework for seeking an end to child labor and forced labor: Not only do we believe all humankind to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that each person is valuable in God's sight -- we are also shown that children have a special place of mention in our scriptures, as Jesus loves and welcomes them, and reprimands those who would denigrate them (Luke 18:15-17; Matthew 18:5-6). May we also do the same in combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

For more information and to get involved, check out the work of International Justice Mission, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Oasis/Stop the Traffik, the Not For Sale Campaign, Free the Slaves, and the Polaris Project. These are only a few groups involved in the growing anti-trafficking movement. You can also organize a viewing of the insightful rockumentary Call + Response (trailer below).

And for those of you in the Washington, D.C. area, come to the premiere screening of At the End of Slavery, a documentary made by International Justice Mission, on September 30, starting at 7 p.m. Get your tickets here.

portrait-justin-fungJustin Fung is the policy and organizing assistant for Sojourners.

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