Commentary: There’s a strong connection between holiday consumerism and modern slavery


Jan. 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. It arrives on the heels of the holiday season, during which Americans spend some $465 billion on gifts and celebrations, according to ABC News.

Ironically, holiday shopping and human trafficking are closely related; but they shouldn’t be, and they don’t have to be.

A lot of people look forward to the holiday season for good reason. Pop-up stores. Restaurants. Shopping malls. Online retailers. Four-hundred-sixty-five billion dollars is more than 2% of our Gross Domestic Product. Enough to create new jobs. Enough to lift revenues over expenses for small and medium and even large enterprises.


Worldwide, an estimated 40 million people are enslaved today, according to the Guardian. That’s more than twice the total number of slaves transported during the 300 years of the transatlantic slave trade. And, it’s a number that is increasing because modern slavery is unbelievably profitable.

And hence holiday shopping is attractive to slavers just like it’s attractive to legitimate business people.

Of course, slavery is not the only crime that is highly profitable today, but it may be the most morally repugnant. In 1981, Mauritania became the last country on the planet to ban slavery, and since that time, universal and unconditional opposition to slavery on moral grounds has been unwavering. But moral revulsion, codified in laws passed at every level and in every country, has not stopped the practice.

Slavery will not end until the profits disappear.

At first blush, this might seem an impossible aspiration. Through competition in a free market, capitalism promises the highest quality goods and services at the lowest-possible prices, and almost everyone on the planet understands and prefers the concept of more for less.

Cheap labor can play a big role in determining costs, and at a time when 736 million humans live below the international poverty line, according to the United Nations, there is no shortage of people willing to work under adverse conditions for very little. A large and highly competitive economy plus a vast pool of poor people create endless opportunities for the most extreme forms of exploitation.

The pathways to domestic servitude, bonded labor, prostitution and even forced marriage are varied and often hard for consumers to discern, but they are all short and easily accessed by the world’s most vulnerable people.

Slavery is pervasive, but ending it is possible.

Over the past few decades, the world has come to appreciate that our economy sits atop the natural environment, and if we destroy and pollute this foundation, we will suffer rising costs to our health, our freedom, our progress. So, there is growing pressure, led by consumers, to bend the trajectory of the economy toward sustainability.

We need to apply a similar pressure to align our economy with our strongest moral commitments — our conviction that no human being should ever be enslaved, willingly or through coercion.

Applying this pressure may be much easier than people think. Indeed, we are in the process of confirming through our research the many ways in which the economic impacts of ending slavery will be largely positive.

There is no doubt that we might pay a little more for some of the commodities most closely associated with slavery — tea from India, shrimp from Thailand, textiles from Bangladesh, chocolate from West Africa. But we also will be liberating hundreds of people living in our own country, enslaved as sex workers, maids and casual farm laborers. This type of liberation is not only a moral imperative, it’s a smart economic decision.

Slaves today are exploited for about two years and then dumped, often because they are too sick to continue. The costs of helping people who have been exploited and traumatized — legal services, medical care, job training and so on — are enormous, and they fall on all of us. They greatly outweigh the economic “benefits” of free labor.

In other words, the goods and services linked to slavery are only profitable to a few, and they actually turn out to be pretty expensive for everyone else. Allowing human trafficking and modern slavery to continue is morally wrong and makes no economic sense. Reducing the cost of a good or service with slave labor calls into question our status as moral beings.

There are many economic and policy levers that can disrupt and ultimately end human trafficking. As consumers and voters, we can all pull some of them, affirming our moral integrity and protecting our economy at the same time.

And we can all start right away by refusing to buy goods known to be produced with slave labor and writing to our elected officials, demanding that they take a stand against slavery.

Richard Matthew is the faculty director of UC Irvine’s Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, associate dean of research and international programs for UCI’s School of Social Ecology and professor of urban planning and public policy.

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