Slavery is not a thing of the past — and if you eat chocolate, have a cell phone, or wear cotton you may well be contributing to it, says Stanford MBA student Katrina Benjamin.
Benjamin, who has worked with microfinance and agriculture organizations designed to alleviate poverty in the United States, Rwanda, and Mexico, wants consumers to put more pressure on producers of products that use forced labor somewhere in their supply chains. She cites the United Nations' International Labour Organization's estimate of 21 million adults and children who are either forced to work without pay or in jobs they don't want. Included are children working to pay off debts and those forced into prostitution and pornography by adults. Others work long hours in mining or agriculture. Slavery was defined by the League of Nations in 1926 as "the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised."
Yet many, if not most, of us eat, wear, or use items tainted with slave labor every day, said Benjamin, a member of the Stanford MBA Class of 2013, in a speech she gave at the Socially and Environmentally Responsible Supply Chains Conference held at Stanford GSB Oct. 10. Many cell phones, for example, have circuitry that contains coltan, which is mined by child slaves in the Congo and whose sale funds rebel militia, according to the documentary film Blood Coltan and a case study published online by BMS World Mission, a nongovernmental organization. A 2009 report by another NGO, Global Witness, lists electronic manufacturers using the Congo source.
Benjamin became passionate about slavery after hearing a talk in Mountain View, Calif., by Daniel Walker, a private investigator. Walker discussed the difficulties he faced during his four years gathering evidence against traffickers and brothel owners who forced teenage girls to work as prostitutes with no pay. Although his investigations led to the freeing of more than 200 minors from prostitution, there were many more victims whom he was unable to help because of corruption in law enforcement, where the police were being paid to protect brothel owners' interests and refused to investigate their crimes.
"I did not witness slavery while I was working in social enterprise, but I did experience families living in crushing poverty," Benjamin said. And it's poverty that drives the complex issue of slavery, she maintains. To reduce it, she believes, governments, academics, companies, and NGOs must work together. "The producers of these products, who use slaves, will follow the money," she said, urging companies to pressure suppliers to clean up their act and help monitor their labor conditions.
Slavery is closely related to another problem, child labor, which is also largely problematic from a number of human rights perspectives, she noted. The answer in cases of both employed children and enslaved children, she argued, is not simply to close down operations where such activities take place. Rather, companies should work toward hiring their parents or adult siblings to produce the same goods, which puts money into the family so the children can go to school and the family can enjoy a more secure future.
NGOs can take a bigger role in rehabilitating and retraining former slaves, and in pressuring governments to prosecute slaveholders, she suggested.