Ethics @ Work: What’s your slavery footprint?

Antislavery groups assert that there are at least than 10 million slaves in the world today, and perhaps more than double that number.

September 22, 2011 22:49
3 minute read.
Picture from the Parasha

workers 311. (photo credit: Israel Weiss ( http://artfram)


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Today, slavery is technically illegal in every country in the world. There is no place you can legally buy a chattel slave, or for that matter sell yourself as one. However, the practice has not disappeared, and antislavery groups assert that depending on the definition, there are at least than 10 million slaves in the world today, and perhaps more than double that number.

To increase consciousness of this phenomenon, and to make the issue one of personal and not just public ethics, a new website was launched this week that purports to disclose to every consumer his or her “slavery footprint.” The site ( is sponsored in large measure by the US State Department.

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It defines a slave as “Anyone who is forced to work without pay, being economically exploited, and is unable to walk away.”

The numbers include a small number of actual chattel slaves (bought and sold in a regular marketplace) where laws against this practice are flouted, and a much larger number of child workers and “bonded laborers” who are forced into labor to repay debts.

The site includes a questionnaire that purports to tell you how many slaves “work for you.” The methodology is not so clear from the site and seems to be rather arbitrary; if I buy one soccer ball that is produced by a sweatshop employing 50 youngsters, are all 50 working for me? Does it depend on how the ball is made: a few children accompanying the effort from beginning to end, or each child concentrating on one specific task? Clearly it shouldn’t really matter how many individuals are involved; in any case, the number is likely to be enormous.

Another shortcoming of the site is a clear distinction between the different types of servitude. Ethically, there is a clear distinction between the “curse of Adam,” which determines that the vast majority of grown-ups have no choice but to work, and slavery, which means that you have no choice for whom you work.

But the distinction can be fuzzy; if you live in a mining town, are you a slave because the only employer in your town is the mine? Conversely, if you are confined to a workhouse with no pay, are you not a slave because you are physically capable of running away? The issue of child labor clouds the issue further. In many places child labor is the key to adequate income for the family and adequate nutrition for the children.

The issue is thus, at least to some extent, bound up with the “curse of Adam” as opposed to true servitude.

There is also a definitional problem: Is the issue the child’s ability to walk away? If so, then is a child a “slave” because his parents compel him to do chores? Or is it the parent’s ability to extricate the child from servitude? It would be useful to see more transparent information on these issues.

One good piece of news is that even according to the very broad definition of slavery used by the State Department, it is clear that less than 1 percent of the world’s workforce is enslaved. But tens of millions of people deprived arbitrary of their liberty is no light matter, and many may be concentrated in a few sectors where consumer awareness could make a real difference.

The current State Department-sponsored site is rather short on the kind of hard information needed to make a reasoned ethical judgment.

But it is doing a good job of raising awareness of the issue, and increased awareness is usually the first step on the way to increased transparency. So the site should be considered a positive development in mankind’s millennia-old struggle for human freedom.

Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).

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