68 slaves work for me | Globalization | DW | 11.06.2013
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Globalization

68 slaves work for me

Am I a slave driver? After taking a test on the website slaveryfootprint.org, I found that I had dozens of slaves working for me worldwide. If that's the truth, what can I do to help end inhumane working conditions?

Pens, body wash and diapers for my child. These consumer items drove my test result through the roof, explains the website slaveryfootprint.org to me. The different raw materials in these products - wool, coal and certain metals - are extracted and harvested worldwide under inhumane conditions. My slaves are primarily in China, but a few are also in South America, Ukraine, Russia, Indonesia and India.

A non-profit organization based in California is behind the website. Justin Dillion, the founder, assumes that some 27 million people worldwide are forced to work without pay. One could also use the term unpaid forced labor.

Dillon sought out 400 everyday products, from smartphones, t-shirts and coffee to the ring that you wear. He then calculated average values, which lead to the test results - in my case 68 slaves. The test is well designed and laid out so that it can be recommended as much as possible on social networks. For the organization, it's all about raising as much awareness as possible for the issue. 

More details, please

But there has been some criticism of the website's content. Sabine Ferenschild of Südwind, an organization which focuses on international economic issues, views the term "slavery" critically.

"It's very difficult to quantify what constitutes slave-like conditions as opposed to paid labor that represents a very extreme form of exploitation," Ferenschild told DW.

Screenshot from website slaveryfootprint.org showing a map of the world.

slaveryfootprint.org seeks to raise awareness about inhumane work conditions

The website is largely open about its sources, but lacks detailed information on certain issues, according to Ferenschild. She finds the idea a good one, but the website does not go far enough for her.

"This website would groundbreaking if it would expand its focus to a few more issues: the lack of minimum social standards and a humane wage, which is rarely paid," Ferenschild said.

What can I do?

In plain speech, that means that even if the number 68 isn't correct, the website does create awareness about the problem. People all over the world work under the most inhumane conditions, so that I can maintain my living standards. After carbonfootprint.com already told me how damaging it is for the environment when I travel by plane, slaveryfootprint.org has brought inhumane working conditions to my attention. 

The website proposes a simply solution to the problem: raise awareness and donate money. The website does not recommend that you avoid certain products. The foods and consumer products that are mentioned on the website are not linked with brand names. Sabine Ferenschild said that even if the website did make such recommendations, it would do little: trying to be a fair consumer is complicated and time consuming.

"Because it takes a lot of know-how and because the supply chains are so complicated and long, the responsibility lies with the legislature and the companies," she said.

Supply chains lack transparency

Many companies do not know where their raw materials come from. Susanne Jordan, a geographer from Bavaria, believes that the largest firms don't have an interest in changing the way they conduct business.

That's why she is trying to develop a fair product herself: a computer mouse. It only became clear to her once she'd started her project how such a simple product can trigger such a complicated supply chain.

Screenshot from website slaveryfootprint.org showing connection between products and consumer.

Many common consumer goods are produced in near slave-labor conditions

"The assembly work, the soldering, the manufacture of the casings - we do it all in a fair way," Jordan told DW. Two-thirds of the components needed for the mouse are manufactured under fair conditions. "But then there are the supplies that you need to build the components and then the raw materials," she said. There is little information on this material, either because the participating firms withhold it, or because they buy the materials from middle men and don't know the origins of the materials themselves.

Sober assessment

"I assume that the metal pieces in the mouse are not fair," said Jordan, disappointed. But that doesn't stop her from wanting to make the mouse even fairer. She doesn't believe in a 100-percent fair product, but hopes to come close. The mouse is now available, but costs double the price of comparable products.

A company in the Netherlands has chosen a similar approach. This summer, the company wants to begin manufacturing fair-trade smartphones. They came up with the necessary financing through binding commitment to order the product. But even this startup does not promise a product that is manufactured under 100-percent fair work conditions and that meets all environmental standards. Instead, the company is promising a cell phone the manufacture of which is "as fair as possible."

Ferenschild draws the conclusion that transparency is the only real way to fight against slavery and create fair products. She believes that all companies should open up their supply chains to the public. But she admits that most of them would have to be forced politically to do so.

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