By Loretta Napoleoni | Slavery is in our refrigerators. From fruit to beef, from sugar to coffee, slave labor brings food to our tables. “Miguel,” a Mexican slave freed by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a US human-rights organization, may have harvested the apples we eat at breakfast. Miguel picked fruit under guard in the United States. He had traveled to el norte to earn the money to pay for treatment for his six-year-old son who has cancer; instead, his employer enslaved him.
The cocoa we drink while reading the newspaper or watching the morning news shows may come from the Ivory Coast, which supplies half the world market. Children and adolescents from even poorer neighboring countries, such as Mali, trek all the way to the cocoa plantations to earn a subsistence salary. Often, they end up working as slaves in remote farms. “Nineteen-year-old Drissa was one such young man. When he was freed in 2000, he had just gone through a ‘breaking-in’ period as his master accustomed him to enslavement. His back was laced with scars and wounds from being whipped.”
Almost every product we consume has a hidden dark history, from slave labor to piracy, from counterfeit to fraud, from theft to money laundering. We know very little about these economic secrets because modern consumers live inside the market matrix.
The first thought that comes to mind when we discover that our hot chocolate comes directly from slave labor suggests that we boycott Ivory Coast cocoa. But this decision would not help free thousands of young slaves like Drissa. On the contrary, it could make their lives much worse and harm honest farmers as well. “Africa is like a body infested with parasites. One has to be careful not to kill the body to get rid of the parasites,” summarized Rico Carish. Millions of people depend for their sustenance on this parasitic rogue economy. The alternative could impoverish them further, if it does not put them at risk of death.
Often, western intervention, even when willing and well intentioned, achieves very little. In the case of many African commodities, Western companies have no direct contact with farmers. Trade occurs through local intermediaries, middlemen, and shippers. The profits of slavery are collected at the farm gate, a practice that effectively incorporates them in the price of the product. Often the intermediaries do not even know or care that slave labor is involved in the production of the goods they trade. This explains why halting imports from the Ivory Coast will not end slavery but force thousands of honest farmers and their families into poverty. To eradicate the problem, one must attack the root causes, a task that only local governments can accomplish. But good governance also proves a rare commodity on the African continent.
Even more shocking is the discovery that in the twenty-first century, slavery is booming on a global scale. According to the United Nations, slavery is growing at an unprecedented rate. Figures put global slavery at 27 million persons, a generation of modern slaves that, according to the International Labor Organization, produces yearly profits of around $31 billion. Population explosion and great migrations coupled with globalization have boosted the slave trade. “The increase in slavery is linked to globalization,” concurs Kevin Bales, author of Ending Slavery: How We Will Free Today’s Slaves. “But this is not about sweat-shop workers existing on misery wages. Slaves are under the complete, violent control of another person; they are economically exploited and get only enough food and shelter to stay alive. For millions of victims, their experience differs little in hardship from that of slaves hundreds of years ago.”
Slavery’s resurgence exerts a direct effect on its cost, which has now fallen for decades. Bates calculated that, while over the past 3,000 years the average price of a slave has ranged from $20,000 to $80,000 (adjusted to current dollar value) now people can be bought and sold for a tenth of these prices. After World War II, we witnessed a sudden surge in the supply of slave labor, pushing prices down. Ironically, this phenomenon began as a consequence of decolonization, which shifted slave ownership from colonizers to countrymen. Today’s slaves are predominantly enslaved by their national peers and not by foreign powers. Like other commodity markets, slavery operates by the law of supply and demand, and today supply proves plentiful among the millions living on a dollar to two dollars a day.
Consumers remain blissfully ignorant of these facts. The market matrix, a complex maze of smoke and mirrors, hides the exploitative nature of trade and commerce. The shelves of Western supermarkets are stacked with items produced by people in developing countries who earn a miniscule fraction of their value. Consumers, if they ever chose to think about it, might be shocked to learn who pockets most of the profits of their daily grocery shopping.
Loretta Napoleoni: An expert on financing of terrorism, Loretta advises several governments on counter-terrorism. She is senior partner of G Risk, a London based risk agency. – She is a Fulbright scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC. and a Rotary Scholar at the London School of Economics..
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