The Other Slaves

by Kati Brandt | January 21, 2015

[Editor's note: This is the third post in Kati's series on human trafficking for our January theme of the devaluation of women. Her first post can be found here, her second here, and her fourth here.]

Last week we focused on women in sex trafficking. This week we tackle labor trafficking. To be honest, sex slavery is a pretty easy thing to be against. It’s shocking and horrifying and once you know that it exists it’s morally easy to see the problem. Labor trafficking is a different story. It’s not as organized as international prostitution rings. It’s messy and harder to detect and it affects every single human being on the planet.  Do you buy clothing, shoes, accessories? You might be part of the problem. Labor trafficking is not talked about as much as sex trafficking, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem.

Like sex trafficking, labor trafficking happens all over the world. Like last week though, I think it’s beneficial to look at one side of the issue. The side I’m most knowledgeable about is labor trafficking within the fashion industry. Keep in mind fashion is by no means the only industry that labor trafficking is a part of and, like sex slavery, women, children and men are all affected. But unlike sex trafficking, labor trafficking isn’t as organized. It happens all over the world but in a much more behind the scenes kind of way.

Women being forced into labor trafficking are kept there by a variety of things like, fear, physical threats, and poverty. Most often women from rural villages come into larger cities to take jobs in factories so they can send money home. What they find is that employers make up all kinds of reasons to not pay them. First they often live on site at the factory and so their room and board is taken out of their check. They don’t get sick days so if they are unable to work the loss in productivity is taken out of their check. They probably don’t have normal work hours like you and me. I work 9 hours a day with a 1 hour lunch. A woman working in a clothing factory might work 16-20 hours a day. If she falls asleep? Pay cut. If she doesn’t make her quota? Pay cut. So when she finally gets her check it might barely cover the room and board with a little left over to send home. But if she wants to leave? Go home? There’s no money for that.

Often times, in the United States, we talk about paying factory workers in other countries fair wages. I think we have to be careful in that conversation and I want to note it here because it’s an easy to suggest that as a solution. We compare the amount a factory laborer makes to what we make or the cost the item they make sells for. And I would love to go into more detail about how that’s not a good measure, but the main thing is this: We have to broaden our perspective of what is “fair”. In some countries if a laborer were paid the same as, say, retail associates in the US they would be unsafe. They would be so rich compared to others in their country. There would be a target on their backs because of the amount of money they would have. And on top of the risk to their lives it would also potentially put that country’s economy at risk. So, what do we do then?

Well, this is going to be the point where you don’t really like me anymore. And that’s okay. But the biggest thing causing people to be held as slaves in clothing factories is the desire for cheap fast fashion in the Western world. We are a huge part of the problem. American society wants to walk into places like Forever 21, H&M, Foreign Exchange, etc. We want a $4 dollar t-shirt and we want it right now. But here’s the deal, the price of the cotton, used to make that shirt, doesn’t go down just because we want cheap clothes. So if the price of cotton is the same then how does it get so cheap? Because the store isn’t going to take the loss and neither is the company. The shipping companies aren’t going to charge less to get clothing into harbor. The factory owners are definitely not willing to take a cut in profits. So, that leaves the factory workers. They get paid less or not at all so that everyone else can still make money.

Our desire to have what we want, when we want it is driving the market for slave labor all over the world. Instead of buying a t-shirt that’s going to fall apart after 3 washes, we could be investing in better clothing. More expensive? Yeah, but it’ll be in your closet longer. We need to be doing research on the companies we shop from. Because our society very concerned with the bottom line. And how many of dollars can be made. So, if we want freedom for these laborers we will have to change our own habits and eventually we can help shape society. We have to hold these parent companies accountable so they don’t treat human beings as objects. And we have to stop assuming that throwing money at problems is the answer. Theoretically paying people more sounds great but those reasons that factory owners use to not pay them won’t go away just because we say “Hey! Stop that!” We have to be willing to pay more for our clothing so that humans can be treated like humans.

As Christians, and as humans, we have the ability to affect change with our choices. We know that God created humans in His image. So, no one is less important. No one is less loved. And yet it is easier to turn our eyes from the topic of labor trafficking because, the reality is, the next step we should take potentially messes up our lives a bit. We might have to spend more money on the things we want to be able to buy things that are ethically made. We may have to stop shopping at a company we really like because we find out they have some sketchy practices. But Christ called us to love one another as we love ourselves. And I can’t be a part of the problem and have a clean conscious at the same time. We have to start choosing freedom for people who can’t choose it for themselves.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Haya Benitez.