Which business profits annually more than Google, Microsoft, Nike, and Starbucks combined? According to the U.N’s International Labour Organisation, it’s a business that had over 40 million ‘employees’ in 2016 (nearly 50% of whom were believed to be children) and profited $150bn in 2017. It’s also a business that we – unknowingly – buy from every single day. This business is Modern Slavery, and its supply chain – working for you and me – is enslaving more people than at any time in human history.
The most common misconception there is about slavery today is that it happens in regions far away, where we can’t see the effects of it, or worse, contribute to it. But as someone reading this article on your smartphone, or myself writing it on my laptop, should know that while the scale of slavery is worldwide, its demand is home-grown.
The phone you’re holding contains capacitors made with Coltan and 64% of the world’s Coltan reserves can be found in the DRC being mined by children. The make-up palette that I bought last week contains little sparkles of mica, which is mined every day by tens of thousands of Indian children. Slaves such as these were either tricked or forced into producing raw materials that are sold to suppliers, sometimes multiple times, and transferred on to manufacturers. These manufacturers will then use the materials for the branded products we buy all the time and a combination of distance and sub-contract suppliers means we’re left in the dark.
According to SlaveryFootprint.org’s online test, I have 54 slaves working for me right now. This is based on rough measures of my spending habits, from the supermarket to cosmetics, clothes, sports gear, and electronics. Admitting to my buying habits is a painful process of introspection at the best of times, made even more painful by this result. In all honesty I thought it would be one or two, maybe ten enslaved people at most, despite one being enough. But there it is again, that common misconception many of us hold; slavery isn’t actually on our doorstep, bottling our shampoo, or laced into our trainers.
Coming forward means being subjected to no legal status of their victimhood, just 45 days of government support, and then deportation.
In fact, modern slavery is at our doorstep. Around 13,000 people are believed to be victims of modern slavery in the U.K alone but the real number is impossible to know. This is because of the covert way trafficking rings operate, often melanged into other criminal rings, using the money from trafficking to fund other serious offences such as cyber crime, drugs, and prostitution. U.K victims typically originate from Albania, Vietnam, Nigeria, Romania and Poland and are forced to work in either agriculture, prostitution, construction, and most recently, car washes. There are over 20,000 car washes in the U.K believed to be avoiding proper laws, with victims too scared to speak out, and their travel documents indefinitely seized by their ‘employers’. This example of car washes is especially shocking, not just because of its industrial scale, but also because these are enslaved people in plain sight, just a soapy windscreen apart from either you or I.
Victims fear coming forward because they know they’re in a dark catch-22: coming forward means being subjected to no legal status of their victimhood, just 45 days of government support, and then deportation. Deportation however means returning ‘home’ to the communities that harbour the traffickers who originally enslaved them, with 34% of victims being re-trafficked or others simply just disappearing. Without the intelligence victims hold however, the police are left stumped and just 1% of victims will see their exploiter brought to justice .
So what’s being done about it? A lot of money has been thrown at tackling modern slavery with philanthropic funding rising exponentially. According to Freedom Fund, almost $100 million was given to the cause in 2014, up from $63 million in 2012. What’s more, international organisations have been working tirelessly, and some governments have launched national action strategies. Yet much of this is shaping up to be a lot of humanitarian hot air. Between the scarce data on victims and culprits, limited co-ordination between governments, and even differing international views on what constitutes as modern slavery, actors have been unable to truly grasp what indicates successful impact.
Conditions laid out in the U.K’s Modern Slavery Act do not go far enough
Even earlier this month, the UK’s world-leading 2015 Modern Slavery Act was found by a Parliamentary Select Committee to not yet have the data or systems to understand the crime, the demographic and circumstances of the victims or the perpetrators. Meg Hillier MP, chairing the committee said that ‘victims of modern slavery can face unimaginable horrors, but the government’s good intentions have yet to result in coherent action to help them.’ While throwing money at the issue of modern slavery is of some use, there is a limited understanding of what success looks like or which actions should be prioritised which pervades government responses.
Many have pointed to the responsibility of businesses to clear their supply chains of modern slavery, however conditions laid out in the U.K’s Modern Slavery Act do not go far enough. For instance, statements of supply chains are only required from businesses with global sales of more than £36m, and British companies can hide their supply chains overseas so long as their goods do not end up in Britain. Reports that were made have been labelled by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner as ‘weak overall’ and often consisted of simple ‘reiterations of generic human rights policies’. What’s more, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate (EAS) – the government’s main employment enforcement agency – carries out inspections with just one inspector per 100,000 workers. This does little to facilitate the closing of car washes and even less for the thousands of women held in U.K brothels.
So let’s go back to my test results. As a consumer, I was unknowingly – and am now knowingly – complicit in modern slavery. However ridding myself of this guilt does not mean I have to never buy anything ever again or incur the costs of expensive original source products. I, like all of us, should loudly demand the brands I buy from to prove they’re clean. Much like FairTrade or non-GMO labels, imagine if all the brands we bought from felt pressured to display a ‘slave free’ label? Businesses that can prove this have nothing to fear. In the face of policy loopholes and unfocused philanthropy, consumers need to make their intolerance to this cruelty clear, right now. Modern slavery is a business that can be bankrupted.
Take 3 minutes to see how many slaves work for you at: Slaveryfootprint.org