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Slavery Footprint: How Many Exploited Workers Does It Take To Support Your Lifestyle?

Essay: More urgent than carbon footprint consciousness is one group's online test to make us aware how many de facto enslaved workers are behind the electronics, food, clothing -- and even medicines -- that keep the rest of us fat and happy. You

A child mining gold in the Congo (Grassroots Group)
A child mining gold in the Congo (Grassroots Group)
Nina Merli

ZURICH - Let me just say up front that I separate my household garbage. I bring the empty bottles to the glass collection point – okay, maybe sometimes a little grudgingly – and I recycle paper, plastic, cardboard and batteries. Lately, I've been making a concerted attempt to use public transportation. When I buy cosmetics I make sure the label says No Animal Testing. Ever since a friend of mine told me about the illegal and brutal fishing of tuna, I've crossed that fish off my personal menu. I buy only seasonal fruit and vegetables. I'm the first to agree that I could be doing more for the environment, but all in all, I think my efforts for the earth and my fellow humans are pretty respectable.

Or I did think that – until this morning when I took a test on the Slavery Footprint website. Slavery Footprint is a non-profit organization that for years has been working to stamp out modern slavery. And I will tell you that the result delivered quite a smack to my self-image as a good person. Because what the test reveals is how many slaves have to work – without our being aware of it – for us to have the goods we take for granted in everyday life.

Things like our smart phone, music system, iPod, laptop, but also clothes, sports equipment, shower products -- not to mention food. The 11-question test is simple, but the result is shattering. It turns out that my lifestyle keeps 56 slaves busy. And after Christmas shopping it might be even more.

27 million slaves in the world

After the first shock, questions about the validity of the test started to kick in. How could a result like that even be possible? Isn't somebody looking into all this? Surely awareness levels and a sense of responsibility on the part of producers has risen in recent years, or failing that at least a desire not to hit the headlines as an exploiter of children, a driver of slaves? You'd think they'd be more into fair trade now than they were before.

But the problem, according to Slavery Footprint, doesn't lie so much with the factories making the end product like my smart phone; it goes back to the people providing the needed primary resources. Take coltan. You need coltan to get tantalum – the metal used for many of our gadgets like digital cameras, game consoles, laptops, flat screens and mobile phones. These were all objects that I listed as being part of my household when I took the test.

Every year, 383 tons of coltan are mined in the Congo. Work conditions in the mines are considered to be inhumane in the extreme, and children are among the workers. High profits and lack of government controls during the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo led to chaotic mining practices over which any sort of control is virtually impossible: forced labor is the normal order of the day.

Since the abolition of serfdom and human trafficking more than 150 years ago, slavery is against the law in all countries on earth. And yet, according to the UK's Anti Slavery International (ASI) there are still some 27 million people living in slavery – mainly in Third World countries like Sudan, Pakistan, and India, but also Brazil, where people are living at the mercy of landowners, earning virtually nothing.

A house full of slaves

But the problem as I learned doesn't only lie with the electronic equipment: my whole house was awash in end products resulting from slavery. In Question No. 6, you have to list the contents of your bathroom medicine cabinet, or at least cross off the products it doesn't include. In my case, I was able to cross off shaving foam and razors, but I'm pretty sure that if I'd been asked about my electric epilator the number of slaves working for me might well have been even higher. But even shampoo, shower products and medication can have an unfair provenance since they contain raw materials, chemicals or oils such as coconut oil that is produced under unethical conditions in countries such as Brazil.

Negative points in my slave account also came from my clothes closet, seeing as most cotton is harvested by slaves, although I only answered questions concerning clothes on a sort of guestimate basis because I really don't know how many pairs of jeans, or T-shirts, I own. Do you know how many you own?

The kitchen proved to be another minefield, containing an abundance of products of murky traceability. The test doesn't ask about things like mixers, toasters and juicers; it focuses on food products alone, but the result sends my slave-quotient soaring. According to Slavery Footprint, for example, working conditions in many Asian shrimp farms are inhumane, with 20-hour days being the rule. Many exotic fruits from Brazil that are routinely used in juices, yogurts and sweets are harvested under conditions nobody with a conscience could condone. The same goes for the coconut milk we need to make our green Thai curry, the pistachios we serve with drinks, and the sugar for our coffee.

Since the test focuses only on the main aspects of daily life, God knows how bad the results would be if things like vacations were taken into account, or even exactly where all the components used in the construction of my house were to come under examination. Where did those mosaic tiles in the bathroom come from? How about those bricks: from China maybe? And what exactly do you know about the orchids in the living room, as in each step of the production chain?

Every one of us is going to fail in the attempt to be 100% fair and sustainable in the way we live. It's quite simply impossible to have an overview of all the production chains that touch our choices. But the test makes you really think, which is what it's all about.

Slavery Footprint's Internet site is meant to shake you up, provide information, and motivate you to become more aware and active. Site visitors are even encouraged to send form e-mails to manufacturers requesting information about the full production chain of their products, and asking them to examine the working conditions of all involved and improve them where necessary.

Read the original article in German

photo - Grassroots Group

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