What’s your number? Of slaves, I mean.
I’m asking how many slaves are working for you. Everybody’s got some, even those of us who think we’re above the slave trade. And most of us do think that we’re above the slave trade because most of us would never buy slaves ourselves. But that’s the thing about slavery today: we never see our slaves.
According to slaveryfootprint.org, the number of slaves working for me is between 22 and 30, depending on how much of the chocolate I eat that I decide to report to the website. It probably would have be higher if I ate meat or owned an iPhone, but still: 22 is a lot. Thirty is even more than that. In the antebellum American South, half of all slavers owned fewer than five slaves, so the plantation that works for me is quite extensive.
The plantation that works for me isn’t really a plantation, though. My slaves are in places that span Asia and Africa, Europe and South America, Oceania and possibly the United States. Because of that, many of them have never met each other.
But they’re still there. Even though we can’t see them, even though some of them can’t see others of them, they’re all still there. The world has become very large, even though products—products, of course, produced in large part using slave labor—tend to make it feel small. Nowadays, because we can see so much, we’re cautious about believing in things that we can’t see: namely, the slaves working for us.
When I first learned about my slaves, the cognitive dissonance was overwhelming. I go to Wesleyan; I try to make ethical choices; I donate to PETA. I’m not, in short, a person who thinks of herself as a slaveowner (or someone who takes advantage of slave labor). But I am.
I think about slavery in 19th-century America, and it’s hard to wrap my mind around it all. People snatched other people from their houses? People forced people to work without pay? People actually owned other people? It seems so…well, so 19th-century.
But the slavery that goes on today—and qualifying it as “modern-day slavery” does not change the fact that it is slavery—is even harder to fathom. People snatch people from their houses (in India and Vietnam)? People force others to work without pay (in Michigan and Australia)? People actually own other people (in Russia, in the form of indentured servitude)? The global scope of it is tinged with a 21st-century feel, but the practice still seems archaic.
The website slaveryfootprint.org is run by the company Made In a Free World, which calls itself “a network of individuals, groups, and businesses working together to disrupt slavery.” It asks a slew of questions and then generates a number of slaves that work for the taker of the questionnaire. According to the website, slaves, or “anyone who is forced to work without pay, being economically exploited, and who is unable to walk away,” exist all around the world.
An interactive map informs us that slavery exists in countries on nearly every continent, besides Antarctica. These countries include the United States, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, those in the European Union, Pakistan, India, Russia, China, Bangladesh, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia. It’s no longer predominantly agricultural slavery, either: many slaves toil in factories, brothels, and restaurants, as well as in fields.
Throughout the survey, there are animations with tidbits of information for each category. In “What’s Under Your Roof?,” for example, which asks about items commonly found in homes, the site says, “More than 200,000 children are forced to work in India’s carpet belt of Uttar Pradesh. That makes it a pretty large operation, considering Honda, Sony, Procter & Gamble, and Boeing each have fewer employees.”
Made In a Free World attempts to personalize the slave trade, too, adding that a U.S. State Department official, when asked about Coltan (a capacitor used to produce electronics) mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “pointed to the reporter’s smartphone and said, ‘The likelihood that one of these was not touched by a slave is pretty low.’” Bringing it to an even more personal level, under the clothing section, we’re told that “1.4 million children have been forced to work in Uzbek cotton fields. There are fewer children in the entire New York City public school system.”
Living in a world where the importance of social contact is diminishing doesn’t have only whimsical implications about first-world relationships and campus cultures. Doing things remotely allows the unspeakable to occur; because we can’t see the slaves that are putting together our clothes and our phones, we don’t feel complicit in their suffering. But we are.
So how do we make something that takes place thousands of miles away feel real? In “12 Years a Slave,” which was shown at the Film Series in February, there is a scene in which Epps, the slaver of hero Solomon Northup, forces Northup to beat Patsey, a fellow slave.
This scene is heart-wrenching for its physical contact: Epps’s violent epithets, the lashing of the whip of Northup, Patsey’s flinching. Many members of the audience burst into tears. For once, slavery was right there with us. Today’s slavery is far-flung, unwieldy, hard to pin down. It’s illegal, but more than that, it’s something that we don’t have to think about unless we choose to think about it.
Slavery nowadays is different, not so personal and obvious. But it’s still there.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.