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December 2001/January 2002

Unnecessary Fuss


All this fuss for nothing, grumbled Antoine Kandissounon, director of Benin’s main port in Cotonou. He was referring to the flap over the MV Etireno, the ship suspected of carrying 250 children destined for lives of slavery, which floated around off the western coast of Africa for several days earlier this year. When the ship finally returned to Benin, authorities found some 40 kids aboard, but they were all accompanied by adults claiming to be relatives. So, the international hand-wringing over a prospective slave ship transporting children to miserable careers appears to have been for naught and the incident quickly forgotten.

Whether or not that particular ship carried enslaved kiddie cargo, the ugly truth is there are an estimated 27 million humans enslaved worldwide in one form or another. Anti-slavery groups consider this to be a conservative figure. People who believe that slavery was abolished in the 19th century are quite mistaken: there are more humans enslaved now than at any other time in recorded history. What makes today’s slavery so onerous is that it has many different faces and is not easily detected; there are few auctions with specimens in shackles on the block for the highest bidder (although this does occur in Mauritania and the Sudan). It may not often be named as such, but the conditions of contemporary slavery are the same as ever: forced labor under constant threat of violence for no or little pay. It’s a power dynamic that utilizes debt bondage, child labor, servile marriage, and prostitution. Modern slaves can be maids, camel jockeys, or cane cutters. They weave carpets, make bricks, or clear forests. Indeed, today’s slaves are virtually invisible to the Western world, voiceless and hopeless. And the simple reason it’s so prevalent is that inexpensive labor is profitable.

Some may feel that in this modern day and age, every individual has the power to change his or her situation; one need only be willful enough. Not only is this argument naïve and narrow-minded, it is argued from a level of comfort and power that those in bondage cannot conceive of. Former slaves point out that for those lucky enough to have known a world of self-determination their entire lives, it is impossible to understand what it is actually like to be a thing that is owned, bought or stolen—to live and breathe an enslaved existence. It’s vice versa for those enslaved: If you can’t conceptualize freedom or believe that you are deserving of it, how can you struggle for it?

Children are bought from parents for small “advances” with promises of more to come or mortgaged to cover expenses such as medical bills or home improvements; the transaction will be worked off by the child. Often, these kids are taken to far-off work sites or camps and the amount of the “loan” begins the tabulation of debt that will keep the child in financial bondage for the rest of his or her life. The majority of these children never see their families again. Moreover, debt is typically passed on to another family member when the slave expires, continuing the vicious cycle. Other people are outright abducted: from their homes, on the way to the store for groceries, or fleeing from war or poverty. Even more are tricked with promises of good jobs in foreign lands. Upon arrival, victims discover that their new jobs are as prostitutes, sweatshop laborers, or whatever. Already indebted for the exorbitant fee charged by their headhunters, they have nowhere to turn and no legal recourse. Often identity papers, like passports and visas, are kept from them. They don’t know the local language, and can’t go to authorities, for fear of being jailed—or worse.

Slaves are powerless when it comes to wages: It is up to the owners to decide whether or not to pay the worker and it is they who “calculate” debt payments. Usually, slaves are kept in line for fear of physical violence—beatings, deprivation of food and water, and rapes are common. If a slave is fortunate enough to be rescued, rehabilitation is particularly difficult. Child welfare advocates in the Philippines say that children who have been sexually exploited are oftentimes more difficult to rehabilitate than kids who have been traumatized by war. As reported by a British TV documentary, one child in India was caught escaping from the carpet looms he was enslaved to. His owners burned him from head to foot with a hot iron. Fortunately, he was rescued; but couldn’t speak a word for two years.

“Cruelty-Free”—No Sweat
If the existence of slavery is reported at all, the mainstream Western media tends to point at the Sudan in righteous indignation as one of the primary offenders. The slave trade in the Sudan is horrific, but, to focus only on the Sudan is to turn a blind eye to what’s filling our shopping bags and what’s going on right in front of our noses. In many cases, slaves are the people who sew buttons onto the clothes we buy, knot our Oriental carpets, chop the sugar cane that sweetens our lives, grow the beans for our steaming lattes, pick the strawberries we savor, make the bricks that make our houses safe and dry, and mine the coal we burn to light up our homes and billboards.

When I first awakened to a vegan ethic, one of the necessities that was particularly troublesome to find was nonleather or “cruelty-free” shoes. On a small budget, I was often pleased to find “All Man-Made Materials” stamped on the inside of prospective footwear at PayLess and other discount stores; I didn’t think much about the “Made in China” stamp just below it. What most concerned me was the issue of animal suffering—what the thing was made of, not how it was made. As waves of violence crash around us, it is now more crucial than ever that we offer our compassion for every living thing—human and nonhuman—and for the Earth and universe we’re all part of. This holiday season, I encourage everyone to consider even more carefully what “cruelty-free” means to you, to think deeply and embrace everyone’s suffering in your concerns.

We all know that our consumer choices can have a powerful effect on how products are manufactured, what they are made of, and where they are sold. Using your dollars as a tool for change can be extremely effective. Abstaining from brands and stores that are more concerned with the bottom-line than the well-being of the Earth and all its creatures is one way to make Goliath take notice (just make sure you write a letter letting them know). Supporting cruelty-free businesses will strengthen that message and help bring about a more compassionate world. Knowing that your dollars and actions do not support human slave labor must be part of the criteria for cruelty-free living.

To learn more about contemporary slavery, contact London-based Anti-Slavery International (, the oldest human rights group in the world, or visit the American Anti-Slavery Group (, the anti-slavery portal. For anti-sweatshop campaigns and to find out if a company is cruelty-free, visit Sweatshop Watch at For an exhaustive (if not entirely user-friendly) database with the track records of human rights and environmental abuses of all the major brands, see There, you can find out if a specific item—perhaps the shoes you’re wearing—was made by sweatshop labor. To find companies that sell merchandise made by workers who were paid a living wage, visit Peace through Interamerican Community Action ( and download their Clean Clothes Shopping Guide.

Catherine Clyne


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