48 Slaves: Slaves to Tech

The world in which we live grows more dependent on technology with every passing day. Even now, you are reading this on a computer, laptop or mobile device. Unfortunately for millions of individuals — many of them children — our dependency rests on their shoulders.

Many metals go into the production of these technical marvels we take for granted. One of the most problematic is coltan, or columbo-tantalite, which when refined becomes tantalum. Coltan’s unique properties, including the ability to hold a high electrical charge, make it ideal for use in capacitors. Useful not only for computers and cell phones, this ore is also essential for the manufacture of jet engines, missiles, ships, weapons systems, camera lenses, hearing aids, airbag protection systems, gaming consoles like xbox and playstation, and numerous other devices in regular use. Multiple countries host coltan deposits, but the largest by far is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation torn by poverty and war. It is here where an estimated 800,000 children dig the precious mineral out of the earth with their hands and feet, some in pit mines, others in stream beds. With constant exposure to hazardous conditions, radioactive minerals and dangerous tools, disabling accidents are common. An average of 6.6 children die in the mines every month from soil collapses alone.

Because many traffickers in coltan-rich areas use their profits from the sale of this and other technically necessary minerals in part to purchase arms for their war, coltan is considered a “conflict mineral.” The nickname is well-deserved for other reasons, as well, not the least of which is the enforced recruitment of child soldiers, rape and sexual violence that surround its acquisition. In addition, coltan mining camps also directly damage the surrounding environment; large numbers of men in the camps cut trees for poles, destroy the stream beds, and decimate the local wildlife population — including threatened and endangered species — with poaching for their food.

Coltan isn’t the only mineral at the center of trafficked miners. Illegal mining of tungsten, tin, copper, gold, and cobalt — used in rechargeable batteries for everything from laptops to hybrid electric cars — also perpetuates the problem of trafficking. But the connection between slavery and modern technology goes beyond the mines. Factories in eastern Asia where these products are manufactured often use slave-like conditions. Human rights violations in all their many forms have been found at one stage of production or another in the supply lines of all the companies who make our devices. Even the Internet itself has played a central role in the rising numbers of individuals, especially children, sold in America and other countries. Through the anonymity it affords, traffickers and buyers can achieve a distance from the transaction which makes it easier to escape detection.

The connection between trafficking and technology has received wide attention in the last decade, so much so that technology-based companies are finally paying attention. Intel began to manufacture microprocessors using conflict-free tantalum3, and are working toward their second goal, which is to produce the world’s first microprocessor that is totally conflict-free by the end of 2013. To this end, Intel Corporation is currently implementing a verification system at the smelter level, where the raw ore is refined, in order to ensure transparency in their claims. As of the writing of this entry, they have mapped over 90% of their supply chain and visited smelter sites in 20 countries.

Ironically, technology and computers are also being used to fight trafficking in human beings. In late 2011, Microsoft Corporation’s Research Department worked together with its Digital Crimes Unit to draft an RFP (Request for Proposals) for scholarly research into the role of technology in sexual slavery (specifically where children are involved). The project also sought to identify new ways technology might be used to intervene when trafficking is identified. Six winners were selected in early 2012 and at this time the projects are ongoing. The grants awarded to the recipients totaled $185,000. Microsoft also collaborated with Skype and other sponsors to support the first-ever, all-female, international “hackathon” this year at university campuses around the world. The event gave participating women the opportunity to help find answers to how the Internet might be used to protect and defend trafficking victims.

And hey! There’s an app for that! The Department of Defense’s Combating Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) now offers a mobile app for Apple and Android phones with which their people can train on the go to spot and stop human trafficking. With this resource, military agencies or first responders in suspected trafficking have easy access to regularly updated information. They’re not alone. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials and even commercial flight crews are also training with computer models to spot and stop trafficking in human beings.

Technology has become a cornerstone of the developed world, so our cell phones and laptops and iPods aren’t likely going away anytime soon. We can only stop technology’s role in human rights violations by demanding supply chain transparency, as Intel is working to provide. It’s worth remembering that as more companies follow this example, prices may well go up. We have to be willing to support that increase if it means our upgrades don’t come at the expense of another’s freedom.

48 Slaves: Guilty Pleasures

Mmmmmmm … can you smell it? That warm, rich, inviting aroma of freshly brewed coffee? Over 75% of all U.S. adults look forward to that first-sip moment, most on a daily basis. The morning beverage of choice is in fact the second most valuable commodity in international commerce, after oil. Despite the fact that coffee has been blamed for a multitude of ills over the years, recent studies have begun to turn that opinion around. It may surprise the majority of coffee drinkers to learn that their daily habit has many health benefits, including protection against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes and liver cancer.

Unfortunately there’s another surprise lurking in the coffeepot, one that isn’t so sweet. Rampant slavery lends a bitter taste to the bean we so love. It’s a fact that the majority of the world’s coffee growers receive a tiny fraction of what we consumers pay for a cup of coffee, or even for the whole or ground beans at the grocer. Coffee plantation work in Guatemala pays a mere $3 per 100 pounds. Families are often forced to include their children in their efforts to meet that quota, thus exploited child labourers are a frequent companion to trafficking in this business.

In April of 2011, CNN reported that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused Global Horizons Manpower Inc., a California-based company, of human trafficking across eight farms in Hawaii and Washington state. Two of those farms produced coffee.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2012 that coffee is produced with forced and exploited child labour in Ivory Coast, as well as throughout Latin America, with special emphasis on Guatemala. Workers are subject to confinement and abuse, and induced into work by labor brokers and the confiscation of identification documents from migrant workers. Though trafficked individuals may be participating in all stages of production prior to roasting, the studies show it to be most likely in harvesting.

Still want a cup o’ joe?

I know. You kinda want to stop reading now. I mean, that morning caffeine hit is sacred, at least for me. Somehow I’m sure it just won’t taste the same now. But coffee isn’t the only Blessed Bean under scrutiny for human rights violations in the supply line.

43% of the world’s cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast, some from the same farms as the coffee we already discussed. Many of the slaves in this industry are children whose desperate parents are tricked, selling them into debt bondage or outright slavery.

Americans spend $13 billion per year on chocolate. In fact, Hershey’s and M&M/Mars control two-thirds of the US chocolate market, most of which comes from Ivory Coast. Beginning in late 2000, Knight Ridder Newspapers, the BBC, and a collection of independent journalists began multiple investigations, all of which concluded that exploited child labourers and slaves between the ages of 7 and 16 were smuggled from neighboring countries and sold to cocoa plantation owners in  Ivory Coast. Lured in with the promise of lucrative work, these children are then forced to work in harsh conditions with machetes or dangerous pesticides. Beatings are routine. The chocolate industry promised it would take action to stop these practices, but a 2011 Tulane University study found that a very tiny percentage had received any aid at all. According to the Dominican Sisters of Houston, Mars has a system in place to ensure no forced labor occurs in their supply chain. Hershey does not.

I should point out that these reporting organizations don’t all use the same definition of “child labour” and “child work.” The International Labour Organization (ILO) would like to eliminate all labour for children under 16. However, they do realize that we can’t make it go away overnight. In some instances, child work is required for the continuation of the family or the community. The ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour was added in 1999 and outlines which benefits children must receive (education, safe environment, etc.) Child workers are part of the culture in some places, such as on La Reina, the co-op plantation I visited in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, a few years back. In that instance the children worked in the harvest season and went to school the rest of the year. They were not enslaved. Their whole families lived and worked the plantation, and participated in fair trade practices and eco-tourism.

Okay, so now that I’ve soured your joy on two favorite things, let’s take a look at what we as individuals can do about it. Boycotting isn’t the answer; loss of sales across the board would only hurt the labourers and slaves, as well as  smaller farmers and families who aren’t doing anything wrong. Instead, mindful purchases can make a meaningful difference. For both coffee and chocolate, fair trade certified products are the way to go.

Fair trade policies ensure a fair living wage to farm workers, cruelty- and exploitation-free labor practices, healthy and safe working conditions, and environmentally sustainable methods. Both the coffee and chocolate industries have a number of products that have been fair trade certified. However, it should be noted that there are differences between the standard requirements among the certifying organizations. The Fair World Project offers a list of organizations along with their standards and a little about each one.

48 Slaves: Mindful Ignorance

There has been a shift in how officials view the crime of trafficking in persons; whereas it was once considered an immigration issue, more and more enforcement agencies are approaching it as a human rights violation. Efforts toward prevention of human trafficking and prosecution of traffickers are in flux. Outreach to victims is a major part of the new paradigm; young trafficked women who end up in prostitution are no longer treated like criminals. Immigrants whose papers were confiscated by their slavers no longer have so much to fear from immigration or police officials if they manage to escape or find rescue.

Public awareness efforts are also booming. Because let’s face it: there are too many people who don’t know slavery still exists today. Even the peripherally aware have no idea of the sheer scope, the numbers of trafficked persons or the profits from the sale of their flesh.

Over the last week I was fortunate enough to see “Not My Life,” a documentary about human trafficking and modern slavery around the world. Our local branch of the World Affairs Council rented out an entire theater and offered free admission to the public in order to get as wide an audience as possible. The packed house settled in for a disturbing 80-minute journey into a few realities of human suffering in the slave trade. I’d read much of what the film portrayed and though I wasn’t surprised by the facts, I was touched by the faces of those who are actually enduring this type of bondage. Tears came to my eyes more than once, but I actually gasped out loud only once — when a young woman told how she was first sold as a virgin only to have her owners sew up her vagina and sell her virginity over and over. After the film but before the credits, the screen cleared and three simple words appeared in white letters on a black background:

“Now you know.”

Over the last few weeks since I started this blog, I’ve talked about it to friends and acquaintances. Some read my posts eagerly and were interested in the topic. Others read the first one and didn’t come back. At first I was puzzled by this until I began to discuss the topic in general with others who had never read “48 Slaves.” Almost every time the other person would express revulsion and sympathy, followed quickly by discomfort, then avoidance and/or denial. Perhaps the most indifferent response I got was along the lines of, “Well you know, you have to have shoes and clothes and stuff. What’re ya gonna do?”

In most cases it took an average of 2.5 minutes for the other person to change the subject.

Many people feel sympathy and a macabre fascination with tragedy. We’ll slow down to gawk at traffic accidents, or watch the news for images from catastrophic events. But those same individuals will deliberately don blinders when it comes to slavery. We don’t want to see the truth. We don’t want to know. Because once we do, we can no longer claim ignorance. We have a responsibility to act.

Maybe they don’t hear because we’re bombarded by words and statistics on a daily basis. After a while they lose all meaning. No facts or figures can measure the harm this trade inflicts on countless souls. No words could possibly convey the horror these people face every day. We lack a realistic mental image to give the words any real impact.

So let me help you with that.

It’s easiest, perhaps, to spot the children. Young girls in brothels, or begging on the street, or carrying guns in an army, or working to mine that shiny gold you wear around your neck are immediate red flags that shout “Something is wrong here!”

The adults are harder to recognize. For all we know, slate quarry workers, miners in Ghana or brick workers could be legitimate laborers, though the conditions in which they toil are usually distasteful.

Even the conditions alone can be a clue bat for the obtuse. Toilet facilities and sleeping quarters tell a story all by themselves.

There are hundreds more online. Google “human trafficking” or “modern slavery” and select the “images” category. Many of the photos are part of blogs or news articles that detail the issue in a variety of ways. Fair warning — be prepared. If you can look at the hopeless faces in these images and not be affected, you may just be part of the problem.

48 Slaves: Gadgets and the Girly Trade

The detail that most affected my personal slavery footprint was the purchase/ownership of products like stereo equipment, cell phone, computers, television, BluRay and CD players and the discs that go with them, etc. I’m sure to be in good company in a world where even modest U.S. households are filled with technology. It seems obvious to point out that these items could be constructed without the benefit of slave labor. But that would raise costs and as a result, end-user prices would go up accordingly. With so many consumers focused on getting the biggest bang for the fewest bucks, ensuring a fair wage for everyone along the production line seems antithetical to higher sales figures. Besides, it would surely mean lower profits for the business owners or stockholders, and we can’t have that. The ongoing debate about raising the hourly pay for fast-food employees demonstrates this pretty clearly.

It’s a safe bet that the majority of technophiles aren’t giving up their gadgets anytime soon, slaves notwithstanding. The captive workers behind our gadgets are forced into mines and factories under the most appalling conditions, working sometimes as much as twenty hours each day. Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in 1911? Over 140 immigrant workers were killed by fire or smoke, or who jumped to their deaths. They weren’t labeled slaves, but the reason so many died is because the doors to the stairwells were locked to prevent them taking unauthorized breaks. At the time that disaster was used as an incentive to improve conditions for sweatshop workers. But slavers don’t care about such things; working conditions for their enforced labor make the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory look like a cakewalk.

But mining and manufacturing aren’t the only trades where you’ll find trafficked individuals. Slavery also presses adults into agricultural labor, recruitment for armed conflicts, arms and drug trades, household servitude, even begging on the streets. But it doesn’t stop there. Some are sold for organ and tissue removal, surrogate birth-mothers. Children are snatched and sold through illicit international adoption or as mail-order brides. I didn’t get the above details on any one website. They’re everywhere. Just google “human trafficking” and you’ll see them too.

The most prevalent use of trafficked women and children occurs in the commercial sex trade. Prostitution and pornography are multi-billion-dollar profit-making businesses, and always seem to have an eager market. Slavers and their networks are not about to give this up easily or quietly.

But the sex industry doesn’t offer the glitzy upscale lifestyle the media sometimes depicts. At least, not for the victims. In the New York Times article “The Girls Next Door,” a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement described one scene as the “squalid, land-based equivalent of a 19th-century slave ship with rancid, doorless bathrooms; bare, putrid mattresses; and a stash of penicillin,” and drugs to induce abortion; the scene he describes was inside an outwardly average Victorian-esque house in Plainfield, New Jersey, where four underage Mexican-national sex slaves were found and rescued (2004). Vanity Fair ran an in-depth article (May of 2011) about the efforts of one female cop in New England to help a handful of trafficked young women. Disturbing glimpses into the lives of these victims told a harrowing tale of the strength, determination, and pure, raw luck that got them through years of sadistic mistreatment by their pimps. Two of the girls were brought into the trade at the age of 13 and were finally rescued around the age of 18. Another, 15 years old, was stuffed into a duffel bag and dumped in the middle of a six-lane highway by her pimp. The girls were threatened with violence to themselves or their families, tortured, beaten, isolated from everything they know. Rape, dehumanization and other forms of physical intimidation became a way of life for them. For the thousands upon thousands of others who were not rescued, it still is.

In case you think this doesn’t happen here in the good old U.S. of A., think again. The young women featured in the Vanity Fair article were all born and raised in the United States. And they are not alone. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, over a quarter of a million youths — runaways or thrown-aways — are at risk of becoming victims. The average age of girls trafficked into prostitution is 12-14. Trafficked boys and transgender children are even younger — between 11 and 13 years of age. The pimps are demanding, expecting workers to turn 10-15 tricks per night. When they don’t meet their quotas, the punishment can be quite severe.

Some states are beginning to tackle the sex trade and its potential thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of trafficked workers by enacting new laws and/or going after the Johns. The theory is that if they can stifle the market, they can stop (or severely diminish) the trade itself. Even the Air Force is cracking down on “juicy bars” outside the gates of Osan Air Base in South Korea. Their reason? Too many of them are associated with human trafficking.

But what about women (and men) who willingly choose the sex trade and actually like it? (Are there any?) Are we infringing on their rights by zeroing in on prostitution as a likely forum for trafficked individuals? If so, where and how do we draw — and then walk — that delicate line? Like any highly charged issue, the question of whether or not prostitution is a “victimless” crime is up for debate. Some of the arguments on either side can be seen at Pros and Cons of Controversial Issues

What do you think?

ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/victim-human-sex-trafficking-20139472

Federal Bureau of Investigations, http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march_2011/human_sex_trafficking

Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2012/12/03/selling-american-girls-the-truth-about-domestic-minor-sex-trafficking/2/

New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/25/magazine/the-girls-next-door.html

Pros and Cons of Controversial Issues, prostitutionprocon.org/

Stars and Stripes, http://www.stripes.com/news/juicy-bars-air-force-puts-squeeze-on-businesses-linked-to-human-trafficking-1.238446

Treasures, http://iamatreasure.com/about-us/statistics/

Vanity Fair, http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2011/05/sex-trafficking-201105

Drema Deòraich (some original links may no longer work – 9/7/13)

48 Slaves: How Many Slaves Work for You?

48 slaves work for me.

No, I’m not rich. I don’t live in a big house sitting on acres of land. I’m an average, 50-something woman with an average life. I’ve never personally met the faceless individuals who mine the gold and silver in my jewelry and the minerals in my personal care products, or harvest my food and the cotton for my clothing. I’ve never seen the women and children who endure forced labor to produce and manufacture the products I purchase at the local grocery or department store.

It never occurred to me that my simple practices support human bondage and suffering. Until yesterday I felt pretty good about my buying practices. My closets aren’t full of expensive clothes and most of what is there came from thrift stores. I have few leather items. I don’t wear makeup, and try to buy local produce when I can. Maybe I just never thought about it much.

And then the writing bug took me.

A few years ago I began to write a fictional tale. The storyline is complex, but it didn’t start out that way. As I’ve heard from others who are driven to put fingers to keyboard in creative pursuits, my manuscript took on a life of its own. One of the elements that began to emerge was that of trafficking in human beings. I didn’t intend to write about slavery. I knew nothing about slavery. In fact, at an early stage of my story’s development, I stopped to read what I’d written and almost deleted it all. I thought, “No one will believe this. It’s too harsh. What will others think of me that I could write about such cruel treatment of other people?” I’m not sure what kept my finger off the delete key.

The rest of that day I trudged through a mental debate on that subject. Later that evening, as a distraction, I plopped in front of the television and began to channel-surf. Somehow — I don’t remember the chain of events — I stopped on a channel I’d never viewed before. The documentary they were airing depicted young (young!) women in the U.S. who are forced into prostitution. Shocked, I watched their individual tales wind out before me on the screen for several hours, and came away knowing beyond a doubt that my manuscript was tame by comparison to the real-life stories I’d just witnessed.

In the time since my eyes opened I’ve done a little on-line reading. Information on modern-day slavery is abundant because it’s such a major problem. Estimates on the numbers of trafficked individuals vary from 2.5 million (United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking) to 20.9 million (Polaris Project) to 21 million (International Labour Organisation). Over 50% of all trafficking victims are from Asia and the Pacific. Almost 50% are used exclusively for commercial sexual exploitation and of those, 98% are women and children. Yes, you read right. Children. Knowing the exact number of victims is impossible due to the nature of the crimes and the perpetrators. And prosecution for the perps is sadly lacking. One study done in 2006 showed that for over 800 people trafficked, only one slaver was convicted. (United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking)

Few of us are untouched by this multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Even the mindset behind it can be in operation right under our noses, and we don’t see. Of course we don’t support human bondage in this day and age. Naturally, we and our friends and loved ones despise the manipulation and coercion of other human beings. We’d know if that weren’t the case. These things can’t happen to us, right?

Wrong. As it turns out, I myself “employ” 48 slaves. How many work for you? (Slavery Footprint Survey)

A few notes:  This is my first blog ever. I’m bound to make blogging mistakes; your patience is appreciated. I don’t intend to turn this forum into a scholarly tome with nothing but facts and figures; those can be easily found elsewhere online. Instead, Forty-Eight Slaves will be a tool for awareness both for myself and for my readers. Posts will be added at least every two weeks, more frequently if time permits. (I work for a living. And I’m writing a complex and intricate manuscript, remember?) I welcome intelligent, thoughtful, constructive comments as well as those directed toward increasing awareness of the realities of contemporary slavery and the organizations that fight it. I do not encourage (and will delete) mindless, snarky comments with no constructive value.

Thanks for reading.

International Labour Organisation — www.ilo.org
Polaris Project — www.polarisproject.org
Slavery Footprint Survey — slaveryfootpring.org
United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking — www.ungift.org

Drema Deòraich (from 9/1/13)