What do toothpaste, your underwear, and your smartphone have in common?

An interactive website created by Oakland-founded startup Made in a Free World aggregates everything you use and consume on a daily basis and traces back the likely steps it took for each item to arrive in your possession. Chances are, its route to you was made possible through the exploitation of human beings.

It’s called Slavery Footprint, and we all have one. In a society so driven by mass production and consumption, we often don’t consider where our things come from and how they came to us. I have 34 slaves working for me – and I live a modest, fairly conscientious lifestyle. The survey can get extremely specific if you want it to, like how many avocados you consume on average, and how sure you are that those avocados were ethically sourced.

Modern day slavery isn’t just about the sweatshops in China everyone knows Walmart got busted for. To date, nearly 30 million people worldwide are enslaved, which is defined by many types of servitude including debt bondage, child soldiers, and human trafficking.

"trata_de_personas_image" by Imagens Evangélicas is licensed under CC2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/imagensevangelicas/8321841996

“trata_de_personas_image” by Imagens Evangélicas is licensed under CC2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/imagensevangelicas/8321841996

“Unlike other black market items such as drugs which are consumed just once, humans can be exploited over and over again,” says Kyle Buetzow, director of campaigns at Made in a Free World.

Which explains why human trafficking – the profit off another person by forcing, coercing, or deceiving them into labor or sexual practices – is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world.

According to Buetzow, worldwide efforts to eliminate the $150 billion global slavery industry amount to a mere $120 million per year. That’s the amount we spend in less than a day fighting the war on drugs, the only underground enterprise that succeeds human trafficking in generating revenue.*

But to think that modern day slavery only reaches for us from abroad would make this issue too easy to neglect.

In a 2013 KQED public forum, Michael Krasney acknowledges that an estimated 57,000 to 63,000 people are trafficked within the United States borders. This is probably a conservative number given the amount of migrant workers in construction, restaurants and the agriculture industry, kept silent by employers under fear of deportation.

California reports the most human trafficking cases than any other state, 43 percent of which are occurring right here in the Bay Area.

“Because we have three major cities with big harbor areas, you’re going to have a lot more influx. That’s not just for sex trafficking but for labor trafficking. We have such a rich agricultural industry and we have more immigration into our state,” says Ethan Batstone, director of engagement at Not for Sale, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to alleviating victims of slavery and addressing its root causes.

Trafficking and Smuggling

The demand for, and access to, cheap labor and services is accelerating.

Nine years ago, the International Labor Organization conducted its first study calibrating the extent of global forced labor, which it estimated to be between 12 and 13 million people. In 2012 that estimate increased to roughly 20.9 million.

The severity of this global trend reflects our own discourse in startling measures. In only two years, between 2010 and 2012, the number of (both labor and sex) trafficked victims in California tripled.

Batstone is careful not to jump to conclusions, “It’s hard to know if the number has tripled or if the data has just gotten better. California is one of the premier states to be aware of [human trafficking]. Our understanding of the issue is improving.”

The kind of slavery we’re facing today is an invisible crime; it does not confront us in the way crime usually does. You can avert your eyes as you pass by drug deals, pretend not to notice the bruises on your kid neighbor’s arms, turn off the news when it begins detailing the homicide rate in your city — all of the things people don’t want to deal with that are happening all around them, all the time.

But slavery isn’t in our face like that. It’s something that we, as consumers, inadvertently perpetuate every single day. Working its way up from the bottom of the capitalist food chain, it’s in what we wear, what we buy, what we eat. It’s even in our Bay Bridge, which was built in China by folks working sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, and earning twelve dollars per day.

"Testing! Testing! 1, 2, 3" by Christian Arballo is licensed under CC 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/arballoimages/9512379387

“Testing! Testing! 1, 2, 3” by Christian Arballo is licensed under CC 2.0: https://www.flickr.com/photos/arballoimages/9512379387

“When talking about U.S. history, we are all too comfortable discussing slavery as an evil that ended with the Emancipation Proclamation,” says Batstone. “In reality, the exploitation of human beings continued straight on through to this day. While slavery has been made illegal, it hasn’t stopped it from happening. Not by a long shot.”

However grave and ubiquitous the crisis, there’s a whole lot of powerful actions being taken towards abolishing slavery once and for all. The Bay Area is a national leader in the movement towards a new social network — comprised of government, corporations, small business, suppliers, consumers — that are passionate about and dedicated to socially conscious capitalism.

Click here for a following article that details how Oakland and greater Bay Area organizations are reducing our slavery footprint, and the ways in which we’re turning our global market into one we can rest moral confidence in.

*Correction 11/23: Originally I had compared US money spent annually on fighting human trafficking with US money spent per hour fighting the war on drugs. Actually, what we spend in anti-human trafficking efforts per year is what we spend in roughly twenty hours combating the drug trade.

About The Author

Simone writes about the currents circulating beneath mainstream, with a focus on non-profit developments and at-risk youth enrichment. Outside of freelancing for Oakland Local, she works in the foster care system of Contra Costa County and nerds out on literary magazines. Simone also spearheads the Community Voices section of OL. Contact her at simonelarson@oaklandlocal.com

One Response

  1. Eric James Anderson

    “Actually, what we spend in anti-human trafficking efforts per year is what we spend in roughly twenty hours combating the drug trade.” — wtf the drug war. Nice work simone


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