Editorials

Slavery is our problem, too

It is estimated that more than 40 million people around the world are enslaved, an appalling number that may even be an underestimate. Slavery is a product of repressive or indifferent governments, restrictive societies and conflict-torn countries. It is generally believed that slavery is a problem for developing countries when in fact an equally important, and typically overlooked, factor is the readiness of developed world consumers to turn a blind eye to the conditions under which the products they buy are made. A spotlight on slavery and a new understanding of global supply chains can help address this problem and, with hard work, be reduced if not eliminated.

Slavery involves the use of threats, violence and deception to deprive an individual of the ability to control his or her body, to refuse certain kinds of work or to stop working altogether. According to the Global Slavery Index, an annual report produced by the Walk Free Foundation, an Australian nonprofit organization, an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide were enslaved in 2016. India has the highest number of slaves — an estimated 8 million in a population of 1.3 billion people — while one person in 10 in North Korea lives in slave-like conditions. According to the index, 60 percent of the world’s slaves can be found in just five countries — India, North Korea, China, Pakistan and Nigeria.

The report notes that Africa has the highest rate of enslavement of any region, with more than 9 million people living in slavery. That number reflects conditions on the continent. In Eritrea, for example, “a repressive regime abuses its conscription system to hold its citizens in forced labor for decades.” The index identifies Eritrea and North Korea as having the world’s highest rates of modern slavery and blames state-sponsored forced labor, where people are put to work to prop up the government.

In countries like the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Pakistan, conflict compounds the problem. Government authority and rule of law are weak, and physical security is nonexistent. With millions of people uprooted and displaced, human rights abuses are all too common.

Social practices can result in slavery as well. Many young women lose control over their bodies and their lives when forced into marriage and the servicing of debts frequently leads to situations that can only be called enslavement. In other cases, the breakdown of family structures can lead to human trafficking.

It is tempting to see this as “a Third World” problem. That is a mistake. Consumers in affluent countries enable and encourage such practices when they are indifferent to the provenance of the products they buy. Walk Free estimates that developed countries import $350 billion worth of goods that are produced under suspicious circumstances. As Andrew Forrest, co-founder of Walk Free, argues: “Modern slavery is a first-world problem. We are the consumers. We can fix it.”

The 2018 Global Slavery Index breaks down trade by country, and reckons that $47 billion of Japan’s imports — including products such as electronics, garments, fish, cocoa and timber — are at risk of being connected to slavery. But there are more direct connections. Among countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan had the lowest number of individuals that could be considered enslaved as estimated by the organization, with just 0.3 victims per 1,000 population. But that tiny number still yields a total of 37,000 people, a stunning — and disgraceful — total.

Japan’s performance is troubling by other measures as well. The Global Slavery Index has a “Government Response Index” that totes up such measures as support for survivors, the criminal justice system, coordination among agencies, addressing risk and attention to the supply chain. Its rating is CCC, better than only Iran and North Korea within the region. The index also notes that more than half of the Group of 20 countries have not formally enacted laws, policies or practices to stop business and government sourcing of goods and services produced by forced labor. Sadly, Japan is among those 12 countries.

While Walk Free is to be applauded for shining a light on this appalling practice, critics challenge its definition of slavery and the methodology of its research. The lack of a single, accepted definition means there is always room for debate and distraction. Expect too complaints about cultural imperialism and insensitivity.

We must not allow ourselves to be sidetracked. The index makes clear that slavery is not “someone else’s problem.” We are all connected to the trade and we must be alert to the ways in which we enable and encourage this appalling practice. Supply chain transparency is a critical step in this process. Consumer awareness is as well. The Global Slavery Index is an important contribution to this growing consciousness.