A few months ago, my wife and I sat down to watch 12 Years a Slave, a stunning and brutal depiction of slavery conditions in 19th Century America. The film was remarkably well done, and I believe everyone should watch it at some point to better understand the reality of life for those in slavery, and as a viewpoint into a brutal point in our collective history.
However, if we take a minute to think, we will realize we never actually left the era of slavery.
I’ve been thinking about this idea for months now. It’s taken me this long to figure out what I want to say, because it’s a hard pill for some to swallow:
We don’t really care about slavery.
We think we do. We watch films like 12 Years A Slave and we connect with the main characters. We say, “That’s awful, people shouldn’t be treated like that!”
And then we buy things created by people in conditions no better than their 1800’s American counterparts. We support those businesses who have enslaved entire local populations and keep them indentured so that they can sell things to us in the West for cheaper than something made here. We even know that these sort of conditions are real, but we turn a blind eye. It’s easy, because those suffering no longer work on the side of our roads, but in factories and farms half a world away.
We haven’t abolished slavery. We’ve outsourced it to other nations.
All my life I’ve heard about sweatshops. I remember hearing that certain shoe companies used children to make their shoes and paid them almost nothing to do so. Yet, I had little control over where my apparel came from, since I wasn’t the one buying my clothes. Then, as I grew up and had more say in my clothes, I became more interested in how I looked than where my questionably fashionable clothing originated. Finally, as a young adult, my finances often dictated buying things that are cheap, because I couldn’t afford anything else.
The problem is, all of the “cheap” items we buy aren’t cheap at all. Everything has a cost. The difference is who pays for it. For me, my clothing choices were paid for by the hands of slaves in another world.
Slavery isn’t new. Greece and Rome were built upon an economy that was driven by slaves. Persia conquered everything it could see with an army of slaves. And we feed the endless hunger of our Western Consumerism with the lives of those who have no choice but to serve.
For many here in Canada, there isn’t any choice. We need food and clothing and school supplies, and the widening wealthy-poverty gap in our country has pushed our lower-income families to a breaking point. They cannot afford to buy anything other than the cheapest options, even if that means others must work in abominable conditions to produce these necessities.
Yet, for others, the drive to save money wherever possible is a remnant of a different era. During our grandparents’ lives, they had to be incredibly thrifty because money was always tight. They passed this way of thinking to their children, who may still follow that line of thinking, despite living in a different economic situation. However, the cheapest option is no longer the most simple or the one with the least features. It is the one that has been most massed produced with the least overhead. Businesses no longer compete over who can give the best service or the most durable product. They make the cheapest price point they can, which involves making as many of a product as they can and paying those who do so next to nothing.
And then, why should companies seek to sell well-crafted, artisan-made products when our obsession with the “new and improved” means we will discard our purchase as soon as something newer is available? And if we are always seeking to buy this “new and improved” again and again, we need each of these items to be within our buying power. Which means cheap. Which, in turn, means slave-made.
What is my point? What am I railing against? A few things, which I will close with:
1. Our obsessive consumerism is eating away at the lives of less-privileged people around the world.
Perhaps if we stopped the cycle of always “needing” new and cheap, companies would spend less of their resources on mass-produced crap and more on products made by masters of their craft. This may, in turn, produce more jobs for local artisans, who can then support their local economy.
2. Our oppression of our own lower-income families forces them into this cycle.
For some, the “power of the consumer” has been taken away. The cheapest option is the only option, and in order to keep from turning to a life of slavery themselves, they are forced to sit upon those unfortunate souls who happen to sit on a lower social rung in another country.
3. Our apathy is allowing this to continue.
For many of us, we have the choice of where we shop. We can choose to buy local, or from Fair Trade, but we choose not to. Whether because of habit, or a desire for a deal, or because we frankly don’t care, we continue to allow slavery to go unchecked in other parts of the world. We know it’s happening, but as long as we can’t see it, we don’t care.
I am not inculpable in this matter. Even to this day, I sometimes find it hard to care about a faceless family in China or India. I see a t-shirt or a cheap chocolate bar, and my Western-trained brain tells me, “I want that.” And the price lets me have it. And, I’m ashamed to say, sometimes I buy things that come from sweat shops, even as I have the conversation in my head as to why I shouldn’t.
In the end, I’ve had to make some serious decisions about where my family shops, and what we buy. For us, it started with not shopping at certain big-box stores. From their, we’ve moved to buying almost all of our clothes from either Fair Trade sources or from second-hand stores. Our chocolate is almost always Fair Trade now as well (which is easier when one works at a health food store…)
So this week, I want you to just take a few minutes and ask yourself a very serious question: Do I really care about slavery?