Book summary: Ending Slavery (V)

This is the fifth (and final) part of my summary of the book “Ending Slavery” by Kevin Bales. You can read the first, second, third and fourth parts in this same blog. This fifth part will cover the chapters “Ending the (product) chain”, “Ending poverty to end slavery to end poverty to end slavery”, the coda and the appendix.

Ending the (product) chain

A lot of the commodities and products we buy have a little bit of slavery in them (documented cases: food, cotton, iron, steel, gold, diamonds, shoes & clothing, fireworks, rugs and carpets, bricks…). The problem is, it’s almost impossible to know which shirt or chocolate bar brings slavery into our home. Our first reaction might be boycott, but they can hurt the innocent more than the guilty: poor farmers have to fight against subsidised farmers and with their neighbours using slaves. If consumers also turn against the poor farmers not using slaves, the result can be even more slaves. This is a problem that can’t normally be fixed at the point of purchase. The point to stop slavery is where it’s happening.

Companies that use slave material always give excuses to not fight slavery. Already in 1850, the American slave cotton industry said it wasn’t illegal (not valid now), that they didn’t have the responsibility of making rules or act like police in a foreign country, and if they didn’t, their competitors would and they would be driven out of business.

When a law was going to be passed to require chocolate companies to have a slave-free label (in 2001), they were alarmed because no one could figure out a way to prove that some cocoa was slave-free. So the companies started lobbying against the law, pointing to the impossibility to find enough cocoa that could be guaranteed to be slave-free, so there was a compromise: the law would not be passed if the companies agreed to work with labour and anti-slavery groups to remove slavery from their product chain (the “Harkin-Engel protocol”). Three crucial action points:

  1. A binding memorandum was signed by all stakeholders to agree on and setup a plan forward.

  2. Create a joint international foundation paid by the companies but run by a mixture of businesses, human rights groups and unions. They would do the research and run projects to take child labour and slavery out of the cocoa production.

  3. Put in place a “credible, mutually acceptable, voluntary, industry-wide standard of public certification, consistent with federal law” that cocoa wasn’t grown with child- or slave-labour.

The protocol was a historic document, the first “treaty” between an industry and anti-child-labour and anti-slavery movements. And it was quite precise in the plan of action, but not everything went to plan. The two biggest problems were:

  1. The survey of the farms was carried out by an organisation specialised in African agriculture, but didn’t know about slavery, hence it didn’t ask the right questions.

  2. Underestimating what it would take to mount a “credible, mutually acceptable […]” by 2005. What makes it “credible”, who issues the “certificate”, and what does it certify? Plus the monitoring takes place within sovereign countries.

However, the protocol shows an important new way consumers and businesses can take part in eradicating slavery. It also showed how two US politicians could use pressure so fight slavery around the world.

Another example of “slave-free” mark is the RUGMARK system. Although proving that a particular rug without the mark has been indeed made by slaves is normally impossible, strong circumstantial evidence exists given the large number of enslaved workers. Also, RUGMARK and other anti-slavery groups have been very active publishing the facts of child slavery so few retailers could be ignorant of the strong possibility that they’re dealing with slave goods.

Ending poverty to end slavery to end poverty to end slavery

If we haven’t had great human or economic progress in 50 years, doesn’t fighting slavery make things harder? New research suggests than development is taking so long because we haven’t tackled slavery. Ending slavery might be one of the best weapons to fight poverty.

Robert Smith has studied why some poor countries have made much progress and others haven’t. He divided 139 countries into regional groups and measured development with UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), and included slavery and human trafficking, making the first large-scale study of modern development. The amount of slavery is what better explains the differences between countries, more than level of democracy, national debt, civil conflict or corruption. The analysis shows that in poor areas, slavery is the worst enemy of growth and living a decent life, not just for slaves but for everyone. Slavery is a major cause of depressed economies, low literacy levels and shorter lifespans for all citizens.

Combating poverty helps to end slavery, and viceversa. Ending slavery can have a significant impact on poverty (both for slaves and non-slaves). A great deal of thought and resources go to end poverty, rather less for slavery. What is clear is that these goals should go together, as the combined strength is greater than the sum of parts.

Coda: What you can do to end slavery

The cost of flying someone to help in a poor country would pay a full-time salary of an anti-slavery worker for a year. The most effective way to combat slavery is joining an organisation like FreeTheSlaves and give $10/month. Anti-slavery workers have enough to worry, they should be certain about funds. Although large donations are welcome, what the anti-slavery movement needs is small, regular donations.

Raising awareness about slavery is really easy: there are good books, films, web sites and blogs introducing people to slavery. For example, “How to combat modern slavery”, the TED talk that made me interested in the topic in the first place, or the video page in freetheslaves.net.

Appendix: Measuring the effectiveness of anti-slavery work

Characteristics of successful programs:

  1. Flexibility to adapt to the local context, with programs that change yearly.

  2. Evidence of leadership and problem solving ability within front-line workers.

  3. A range of local, independent programs rooted in the affected communities. Those are better than large, multiregional programs.

  4. Programs with secure financial base: multiple funders and multiyear funding (even if the funding is not large).

And this is, finally, the end of the (very long) summary. I hope you liked it :-)