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December 2002/January 2003
Editorial: Prisoners of Commerce

By Catherine Clyne



Drissa, a former cocoa slave.

Drissa, a former cocoa slave. Courtesy of K. Bales

There are few things that I love more than chocolate. That sweet, creamy, something in chocolate bars, cake, cookies… Mmmm.

Chocolate was probably the most difficult thing to give up when I went vegan. That was a long time ago, when dairy-free chocolate was chalky and gross, and I got used to living without it. It’s only in the past few years that I discovered the joys of vegan chocolate—I mean, really good chocolate. I must confess, my sweet tooth has returned and my desire for chocolate seems to be making up for lost time.

Earlier this year, a report on “Dateline” featured footage from the documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation, by Kate Blewett and Dennis Murphy. They met slaves rescued from a cocoa plantation in the Ivory Coast, who told how they worked some 12 hours a day, hacking at pods to scoop out the cocoa beans inside. At night, the boys were locked in a wooden shed where a tin can served as a toilet. One boy named Vincent said he had witnessed coworkers beaten nearly to death when they tried to escape (see photo), so running away wasn’t much of an option—plus, he had no idea which way “home” was. Like hundreds of young men, Vincent came to the Ivory Coast from Mali hoping to find paid work. He was tricked as many are: promised a job, carted into the countryside, forced to work without pay. To magnify the horrific injustice, Vincent had never even tasted chocolate—a luxury.

Vincent is the “new” face of slavery: anonymous, scarred, and temporary. Gone are the shackles and auctions that characterized the old trade in human beings; gone are the obligatory papers recording property transactions. Today’s slaves are undocumented; they are controlled, not owned.

Americans are slowly becoming aware of sweatshop labor: men and women paid paltry wages to make sneakers and T-shirts sold for enormous profit. This is not slavery, however; believe it or not, there is a difference. One is paid; the other is not. It may not be enough to live on, but sweatshop labor is still employment. It might seem ridiculous to contemplate gradations and nuances of exploitation, but there are.

As if sweatshop labor weren’t evil enough, an estimated 27 million people are currently enslaved: forced to work, paid nothing, and held against their will under threat of violence. That’s twice the estimated number of Africans abducted for the transatlantic slave trade (13 million). Or, imagine the entire population of Canada enslaved.

Worst of all, today’s slaves are completely invisible. There’s no Nike swoosh or brand name to label their presence. Far away from our lives, slaves produce some of the most basic things. They pick cocoa and coffee beans; they harvest sugar cane; they make bricks; they pick cotton and weave it into fabric; they mine gold and gems; they make steel and the charcoal to smelt it. The tiny fingers of children make matches, fireworks and locks; they create glass and weave carpets. When you think about it, slave labor is an intimate presence in our lives, bringing a whole new meaning to “globalization.”

The Vegan Connection
As an ethical vegan, I try my best to be mindful of how my life is connected to suffering and reduce my participation in it—to be actively compassionate, rather than comfortable and complacent. I turned away from meat more than a dozen years ago and dropped dairy soon after. My eyes had been opened to the immense suffering my diet caused. The lives of individual animals degraded, tortured and twisted just to fill my belly. I couldn’t live with that; I also learned that I could live a healthy life without the apparent essentials of animal flesh and fluids.

One of the most terrible things about industrial animal production is how invisible the creatures are. The numbers are staggering: nine to ten billion animals slaughtered in this country each year; some 90 percent bred in factory farms. That’s like killing the world’s human population one and a half times every year. Yet, how much of this do we actually see? The suffering is sanitized and forgotten. That’s almost unbelievable given the numbers we’re talking about. It makes me wonder, if we could hear them, what would the animals say to us?

When asked what he’d like to say to people who eat chocolate, Vincent said: “They enjoy something I suffered to make.” Tell them, he said, when they eat chocolate, they are “eating my flesh.”

If all the exploited human and non-human animals could send us a message, I think that is what they would more or less say.

Some animal activists dismiss human slavery because, they argue, humans have the power to change their situation and escape their abusers, they can raise their voices; animals have none of these privileges. This is true, but it’s also a naïve and grotesque oversimplification. By definition, a slave is powerless. When someone is treated as disposable; regularly abused, raped, tortured or threatened with violence; and not allowed even the most basic care, it’s not likely they will try to escape or envision freedom as a possibility. To argue that humans aren’t deserving of our attention because they can take care of themselves and to give no more thought to it is to be complicit in a system of misery—the same abusive system animal activists have been struggling to dismantle for decades.

Slaves are prisoners: prisoners of commerce, as Jesse Sage aptly puts it in this issue. Caught in this web, they are every bit as helpless and exploited as animals—especially the children. Yet, all of us are trapped in this web together: People make stuff, animals are stuff, and we in the U.S. buy stuff. Activists have to focus their energy or risk burning out, but we also know the power of the pocket, how consumer choices can influence a market.

There is a growing movement for fairly-traded products, including coffee, rugs, and chocolate. With our purchases, ethical vegans can change the standard of what is called compassionate. Right now, vegan or “cruelty-free” chocolate means there are no animal ingredients in the candy. The label doesn’t include concern for the animals made homeless by cocoa farms or those poisoned by the chemicals used by non-organic farmers; and it isn’t concerned with whether the cocoa beans were harvested by slave labor—yet.

Unless the packaging says explicitly that the product is fairly traded, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the chocolate we eat is connected to slave labor-that’s every other chocolate bar. For ethical vegans, this must give us pause to reflect and to ask ourselves: How can eating someone’s flesh be called “cruelty-free”? After all, humans are animals too and just as deserving of our care and concern.


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