Slavery: What’s Your Ethical Duty?

Ask anyone if slavery is unethical and you’re almost sure to get a resounding yes. But the cold truth is that the practice continues in many forms and in many places, even here in the U.S. So a much more relevant question has to do with our ethical responsibility to do something about the problem: Do we have one and what exactly should we do?

First, let’s remember that today’s international consensus in words if not deeds is a relatively new phenomenon. Philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, two of the earliest ethicists, wrote spirited defenses of slavery. Aristotle argued that slavery was a natural thing and that human beings came in two types—slaves and non-slaves, while Plato believed that it was right for the “better” to rule the “inferior.” Slavery of course was allowed under the original U.S. Constitution and it took a civil war to end it.

Today, slavery is illegal in almost all parts of the world, but it continues anyway in various forms—debt bondage, human trafficking, and child labor, to name a few. Some may argue that this is not slavery in the strictest sense, where one individual actually owns another. But when an 11-year-old boy is worked eighteen hours a day seven days a week because his parents owe a debt that can never be repaid or when a young girl is tricked into moving to a foreign land and given no choice but prostitution or domestic service, it can’t be called anything but slavery.

So what is our role as individuals in fighting against this?

If we define ethics as the standards of behavior that tell us how human beings ought to behave toward each other, either directly or indirectly, then slavery is clearly wrong, and our first responsibility is never to engage in it. Obviously that means never taking advantage of another person to put him or her in indentured servant-like conditions and never patronizing an establishment or person who controls another person that way, such as sex-trafficked workers.

But we must go beyond that.

For starters we must use moral persuasion to bring the problem to the top of the world agenda. We should push our governments and international organizations to pressure and even force others to uphold anti-slavery and anti-trafficking laws. We should support organizations like CSR International that discourage the use of slave labor and slave-like working conditions. We can do all that with a little extra time and effort.

But it’s not enough. There is a greater personal effort that’s required, and it comes with a larger measure of effort and a degree of financial sacrifice.

We are all consumers, and consumers can make a big difference. It’s fine for governments and international organizations and associations to pass laws and apply pressure to improve working conditions and enforce laws, but only when consumers in large numbers refuse to buy products made with slave labor will the raison d’être for it will evaporate. Only when slavery fails to serve the purpose of the “employer,” will there be a chance of ending it.

This is far from an easy task. When so many of the products we buy today are made in China and other foreign countries where slave labor is widely used, it’s sometimes impossible to know whether your purchase is doing harm, and sometimes you may have no choice. But considerable progress is being made on a number of fronts.

Today, when you shop for coffee or chocolate or a handmade carpet, you can look for a Fair Trade or GoodWeave label, a certification that tells you a nonprofit international organization has examined the conditions under which the product was produced to make sure that “workers enjoy freedom of association, safe working conditions and sustainable wages,” to quote Fair Trade USA. “Forced child and slave labor are strictly prohibited.”

The catch is that you may have to go out of your way to find that coffee or chocolate or a handmade rug and pay a higher price for it. For those of us who are better off, that may be an easy choice, but for many of us, it’s not. The richer among us do have a bigger opportunity—and a bigger obligation—to shop wisely, but everyone can do it on some level or contribute another way, such as volunteering with one of many organizations working to stamp out slavery.

So here are three steps that I think will help put some action behind your indignation over slavery.

1) Be aware of how prevalent it is. Though exact numbers are obviously hard to come by, the U.S. government puts the number of enslaved workers at over 30 million worldwide. You can read more about their conditions on several excellent websites: antislavery.org, notforsalecampaign.org, fairtrade.net, goodweave.org.
2) Spread the word. Let others know how you feel and help educate them about the extent of the problem and what how they can help.
3) Do what you can to register your feelings—with your government, with international organizations, and with retailers and manufacturers—and do everything you can to withhold support from those who profit from slave labor. There’s an excellent website that can help you check the record of most brands and companies: http://www.free2work.org. You can even download their free app so you can check on your mobile device when it really matters: when you’re in a store and about to make a purchase.

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