Slavery is Alive and Well in the US: In Support of California Transparency in Supply Chains Act

In just a few days, we will commemorate the International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade. Although most of us might be unaware that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade lasted some 350 years, we do tend to believe that slavery is a thing of the past -- that the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment banished it forever from our shores and that America has been slavery-free ever since.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Most Americans are unaware of the extent to which both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens are victimized by human trafficking and various forms of slavery in our country today. And if we think that our own lives are untainted by the products of slave labor, we must think again. As Free the Slaves president Kevin Bales and I point out in the newly updated paperback edition of The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (UC Press, 8/23/2010), there's a very good chance that the clothes we wear and the food we eat have been tainted by slavery. Cotton, that symbol of bondage in the pre-Civil War South, is now being picked by slave labor on three continents, and marketed as clothing here at home. The orange juice and tomatoes we have with our burgers at lunch could very well have come from a Mexican or Guatemalan immigrant working under coercion. The rug we walk on at home could have been woven in India, Pakistan or Nepal by one of a hundred thousand child slaves, seven, eight, nine years old. Cell phones and lap tops require an element called tantalum; it comes from an ore that is mined in the Congo, often by slaves.

In The Slave Next Door, we document the use of slave labor in such circumstances as the manufacture of clothing in America Samoa, and the cultivating and harvesting of our crops in Florida, Georgia, New York, Colorado and the Carolinas. We point out that while such mega-corporations as Burger King, Yum Foods, McDonald's and the giant Compass Group have signed agreements pledging to purchase only goods provided by free labor, other buyers, such as Wendy's, Publix, Quizno's, Costco, and Wal-Mart, have refused to climb on board. Slavery in our markets is happening all around us, yet we remain blissfully ignorant of this blight on our nation.

Does this mean that all tomatoes, all oranges, rugs, cotton shirts, cell phones and lap tops are the products of slave labor? Certainly not; but some are, and we just never know. It's that insidious. We simply cannot hope to eradicate what we can neither see nor understand. For this reason, it is vital to support and pass such legislation as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010. It provides the consumer -- us -- with a window through which we can examine the development, from first to last link in the chain, of our consumer goods. With weapons such as this, we can begin to effectively combat the presence of slavery in our daily lives. It's a powerful first step.