It was our first night in southern India. Akil, our instant and forever friend, picked us up at the busy airport and navigated through four hours of bumpy roads, stray dogs, and impossible turns. The smell of condensed milk mixed with spices filled with air, unfamiliar music – no, musics – played all at the same time, and I knew this was going to be an adventure. When we got to the orphanage, it was pitch black and another staff member greeted us in his night clothes. We found our confusingly hot, concrete room and prayed no exotic bugs would make us their meal. Through the night, new sounds caught my attention as I tried to imagine what was happening. Scooters, crickets, cow bells. And last, a medley of metal machinery and rhythmic tapping. I fell asleep.
On our last day in the compound, we finally got to meet them. The families, some with tiny children, who worked on the brick quarry. We had waved over the wall to them through the week, just as curious about them as they were about the strange visitors. We gave the kids red, yellow and blue toys, and everyone got an ice lolly, too. I assume that was a relief from the demanding work they did all day. And all night. The nighttime tapping turned out to be them, often beginning work at 5am and not clocking off until 10pm. Whole families, bent over rusty tools. Sweating in the impossible heat. Carrying heavy loads. Trapped in the quarry because of debt that seemed to grow at rates they couldn’t keep up with, taken on by their children and then their children. No way out. No choice. No freedom.
There are 35.8 million people currently enslaved worldwide. Men, women and children are affected in their own countries, and some are brought across borders. Forced to work in rice mills, brothels, brick quarries, cannabis factories, apple orchards, hotels, fishing boats, busy streets, rural areas, houses, apartments, and almost everywhere in between. For little – or no – pay. In harsher conditions than you and I can imagine. Victims of violence, of abuse, of exploitation.
There are more slaves today than at any other time in human history. The problem is huge, and complex, and dark.
But it’s not unstoppable. It’s not beyond reason to think we have the tools to stop it. The real question is whether or not we have the guts to use them. I’m a big believer in asking why things happen as a starting point for finding solutions. You are, too, I presume: if your mouth is sore, you head to the dentist; if your oven isn’t working, you read the manual.
When it comes to modern-day slavery – or ‘human trafficking’, when referring to someone who has been moved in order to be exploited – we have to ask why it happens. Why are people vulnerable, and why are others exploiting that vulnerability?
Perhaps it’s poverty. Maybe it’s social isolation or family breakdown. Could it be racism, or sexism? Lack of awareness, weak legislation, under-resourced or corrupt law enforcement. Money and complex criminal structures.
All these things drive what is fast becoming the most lucrative form of organised crime across the globe.
But there’s something else: us.
The choices that we make every day impact the lives of others. There is a price to pay for our hunger for crowded wardrobes and cheap food and the to-be-replaced-next-year stuff.
We’re not the ones who are paying it, but we are the ones who can stop it. Here are three ways.
+ Buy Less
We live in a world where more is best, and where enough is never really enough. Where we used to have four fashion ‘seasons’ a year, it’s not uncommon now for new collections to appear on the high street weekly. Each year in the UK, we throw away seven million tonnes of food and drink from our homes. This attitude towards things means that we demand more for less, creating increasing pressure on retailers to source cheap labour and cut corners with their ethics policies. So whether it’s through a capsule wardrobe or set meal plans for the family, deciding to forego those jeans we don’t actually need or keeping that iPhone alive for just a little longer; by buying less, we can help cut demand.
+ Buy Local
I love this one. In fact, I love it so much that a couple of years ago my housemates and I decided to only buy things grown in Northern Ireland, where we live. The issue was we chose to do this in March – and if you’ve been to Northern Ireland, you know it’s not all that tropical at any time of the year, but especially in early Spring. Still, it was an eye-opening experience that drove home the fact that we expect everything to be available year-round. This can contribute to the drive for cheap labour, practices that endanger workers and constant transport that harms the planet. So, where you can, support local retailers. Craft-makers, green grocers and butchers, coffee shops. They’ll often stock a lot of great local produce, and are also often more transparent about their ethical codes. (This is not to say that products from your local area haven’t been produced by people who are enslaved – so let’s get to the next point.)
+ Buy Curiously
Do you know who made your clothes? Or who cultivated the beans for your chocolate bar? How many steps of production did it take to get that gadget into your hands? Find out. Ask questions. Talk to shop owners, write letters, send tweets. If we can generate a culture of consumer curiosity, we’ll make it harder for retailers and companies – local and global – to get away with harmful practices. Let’s ask for transparency until we get it. And let’s be loud about it. Let your favourite clothing brand know that you’re concerned. Tell your friend about that brand you found that pays above living wage. Buy products that are already certified. Ask your green-grocer to chain check.
In 1786, Thomas McCabe stood up to a slave-shipping venture that others wanted to bring to Belfast. My parents’ generation collected all of their grocery shop receipts to campaign for more fair trade products. Last year, a group of young people I know went into their local corner shop and asked for more certified chocolate bars. What will we do?
This article was written for Idea Magazine, and published there in March 2016.