Combating Modern Slavery with Fairtrade

“I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”– Director Steve McQueen, on accepting the Oscar for 12 Years a Slave.

Steve McQueen at TIFF 2013

Director Steve McQueen at the Premiere of “12 Years a Slave” at the Toronto International Film Festival. September 6, 2013. Chris Cheung (via Wikimedia Commons)

At last month’s Academy Awards, Steven McQueen accepted the golden statue for Best Picture, one of the night’s most coveted awards. McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northrop, a Northern free man kidnapped and enslaved in the antebellum American South. McQueen chose to use the Oscar platform to illuminate an issue that is often overlooked in modern society: slavery. His quote, found above, was broadcast to 43 million viewers and merits discussion.

The word slavery often evokes, among other things, historical images of the East India Company, the transatlantic slave trade, and Southern plantations. Unbeknownst to many, slavery has experienced a resurgence in the last half century. Today, it is estimated that anywhere from 21 to 30 million people around the world are slaves. People forced into prostitution or uncompensated labor, children forced into marriages and war, and victims of human trafficking all qualify as modern slaves. Moreover, not only does slavery exist in today’s society, it is also a thriving industry. In fact, there are more slaves today than at any other time in human history.

Developed nations typically experience a low rate of slavery due to a number of circumstances including national wealth and political stability. Factors such as enforced rule of law and low rates of corruption can ensure harsher penalties for perpetrators and reliable protection for victims. Stable, developed nations, like the United States, Canada, and Australia, all have low rates of slavery (i.e., below 0.05% of the population). Although comparatively low, this rate is nevertheless significant and embarrassing.

Modern incidence of slavery

Modern incidence of slavery, as a percentage of the population, by country. Data taken from the Washington Post and Walk Free Foundation. October 19, 2013. Kwamikagami (via Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, many developing nations face poverty, political instability, and war, and thus are likely to have a high rate of slavery. Inadequate law enforcement and rampant corruption allow perpetrators to go unchecked and undisciplined. The world has experienced exponential population growth, mostly in developing nations, which, coupled with rapid development, has resulted in over-crowded cities and many jobless citizens. Those citizens living on the margins of society are more vulnerable to slavery. For example, states within the Sub-Saharan African, South-East Asian, and Eastern European regions are home to some of the highest rates of slavery in the world. In particular, India has the world’s highest population of slaves at 1.1% of the population, or 14 million people.

McQueen is an advocate for Anti-Slavery International, one of the many organizations dedicated to combating slavery with the implementation of an unorthodox approach. Since slavery is strongly associated with poor economic development, organizations like Anti-Slavery International are using “Fairtrade” to help eradicate slavery by creating stable incomes and improved working conditions for farmers and their families. Fairtrade employs cooperatives and independent small farmers, and thus, unlike foreign development aid, seeks to establish self-sufficient communities. Further, Fairtrade is a market-based strategy that encourages sustainability by elevating trading standards. World commodity prices tend to be volatile and in response, the Fairtrade minimum price was established to ensure that farmers are paid for the cost of their sustainable product, regardless of market prices. Consumers pay a higher premium on products, which allows money to flow into impoverished places. The producers of these goods are able to earn a fair wage and support themselves through their work.

Fairtrade helps to develop higher social and economic standards in places that and for people who need it most. It is the hope that these people will be given the opportunity to provide for themselves and avoid exploitation. Buying goods through Fairtrade will halt the cash flow to companies that maintain low production costs with the use of slave labor. Although the problem of modern slavery is a deeply complex issue, one can only hope that Fairtrade will be a factor that contributes to its eradication.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

The Vatican’s New Groove

Pope Francis in March 2013

Pope Francis in March 2013 via Wikimedia Commons.

 One year ago the reigning head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVII, did the unthinkable: he resigned. With a troubled tenure defined by criticism and controversy, Benedict cited deteriorating psychical and mental health for his departure. It was the first time a Pope had resigned in 600 years, leaving some 1.2 billion followers of the Catholic Church without a leader.

In search of a new leader, the conclave of cardinals met in Rome with determination to fill the void. Huge crowds amassed in St. Peter’s Square anxiously awaiting the secretive vote. Crowds hummed with anticipation as white smoke poured from the chimney after a swift deliberation. Jorge Bergoglio, Cardinal and Archbishop of Buenos Aries, emerged to a cheering crowd in papal white to take hold of the highest holy office as the 266th Pontiff, Pope Francis.

Pope Francis lays claim to a number of “firsts” for the papacy.  The native Argentinian is the first non-European pope in nearly 1,200 years, as well as being the first Jesuit Pope, the first Pope from the Americas, and the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere.  With over 40% of Catholics hailing from Latin American states – the largest region of Catholics in the world – this was an exciting opportunity for nearly 500 million people to be represented in the Vatican.

Since Pope Francis’s appointment, he hasn’t wasted any time becoming a renowned international figure.  Named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in December and being generally approved by even the toughest of critics, Pope Francis has had a whirlwind first year.  On the Pope’s one-year anniversary of taking leadership, here is a look back on the last year and a glimpse forward as to what lies ahead for the Vatican.

A global perspective.

Pope Francis is the first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere and, consequently, his appointment can be viewed as a way in which many are chipping away at the North-South socio-economic divide. Following his appointment, the Pope named 19 new cardinals predominantly hailing from poorer countries. The Pope has also been quoted commenting on economic policy, one area where Catholicism is particularly liberal.  Francis denounced trickle down economic theories and raised concerns about the growing gap between the poor and the rich. Having lived and preached in the slums of Argentina, it is clear that he has feels for, and connects with, those less fortunate.

A change in tone.

In an interview last June, the Pope asserted, “Who am I to judge” when asked about homosexuality.  His statement encompassed a definitive and pragmatic shift away from judgment and toward a new attitude of mercy. Although Pope Francis assured the world that the church’s doctrine is not going to be undone, he also asserted that conflict over issues, such as homosexuality, distracts from the greater goals of the church.  Putting aside differences and finding common ground has been at the top of Pope Francis’s achievements.

A shift in priorities.

Pope Francis’s chosen papal name is in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi who was a champion (and patron saint) of the poor.  It should come as no surprise then that the impoverished masses sit at the heart of the new Vatican agenda.  Pope Francis has never been one for luxury; in Argentina he was known for taking the bus and not chauffeured cars, and spending time with the poor. It is even rumored that since becoming Pope, Francis slips out at night to tend to the poor personally, although the Vatican denies this rumor. 

An exile of corruption.

Focusing on those with less, the Vatican has proposed large spending cuts.  With an audit on finances of the Vatican Bank and a reshuffling of leadership, the Pope aims to flush out any corruption. One part of this initiative called for removing four of the cardinals that preside over the Vatican Bank and naming new Cardinals and officials to refresh Vatican leadership.  Although he has made it clear that the Vatican is not a political state, he has not been removed from politics. Rather, he has recently called for an end to violence in Ukraine and champions peace worldwide.

The Pope Francis Effect.

The international influence of the Pope is undeniable. With a following that rivals the population of China, many people look to the Pope for both moral and spiritual leadership. What might be even more important is the influence the Pope can have on developing countries. In particular, Pope Francis’s emphasis on the value of women in the church and society sends an important message to developing countries. Some of these countries, especially those in Latin America and Africa where Catholicism is rapidly growing, face conflict over women’s rights and society. The pope’s advocacy for women’s role in the church and broader society could lead to a profound impact on societal perceptions, and treatment of, women. In short, the Pope’s actions are an encouraging step for the Vatican.

Brandian Revolution: Productive or Irresponsible?

Recently, unpredictable comedian Russell Brand sat down with BBC icon Jeremy Paxman to discuss Brand’s stint as editor-in-chief of the liberal British magazine The New Statesman and his 4,500-word editorial/manifesto on revolution. Brand, known for his lewd and disarming sense of humor, was eloquent and passionate speaking about the failures of democracy. Paxman, keen on trivializing Brand’s political opinion, was stunned as Brand called for a revolution to end a broken British-American political system that serves only the privileged and destroys the natural environment. Brand voiced a growing feeling among British-American youth, who—especially after the US government shutdown—“feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged, and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.” Brand argued that voting is a futile exercise, and only perpetuates a political paradigm that sacrifices the planet and the ‘99%’ in order to shelter the economic prosperity of the ‘1%’.

Brand’s political commentary was startling, and I often found myself nodding in agreement—perhaps due to Brand’s verbal magnetism rather than the merit of his arguments. So were Brand’s statements accurate? And is voting “tacit complicity” in the current system? Below, I will run through a fact check of a few of Brand’s points before debating whether Brand’s advice and vision for the future is productive or irresponsible.

Fact check:

…[the poor] don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system because they see that it doesn’t work for them, they see that it makes no difference, they see that they’re not served…(2:45)

Brand’s message is correct: the poor are, due to personal and societal factors, disenfranchised. According to the US Census Bureau, in the 2008 presidential election, under 42% of adults with incomes less than $15,000 voted. Voter turnout steadily increased in proportion to income to more than 78% of adults earning more than $150,000. What causes this phenomenon among America’s poor? A multitude of factors: decreased civic engagement, workday voting, felony disenfranchisement, voter identification rules and the belief that voting will not bring instant change to the system. Unfortunately, low voter participation in protest of a broken democratic system only leads to greater marginalization. The poor don’t vote and, in turn, politicians make little effort to appeal to the underprivileged majority. While the privileged minority thrives, the poor only grow more pessimistic. As the old adage goes, ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.

…300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as their 85 million poorest Americans… (4:05)

This figure goes uncited in Brand’s article and video interview and is difficult to verify when compared alongside federal census data. However, Brand’s observation of a massive income gap in America is accurate. In fact, it is worse than Brand states. The richest 400 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 157 million Americans (50% of total population). And America is not alone. Almost universally, the gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’ is widening. Some may argue that modest income inequality is a healthy symptom of capitalism, but a system that celebrates billionaires as 46.5 million Americans live below the poverty line is clearly broken.

No one is doing anything about tax havens… (9:04)

Here Brand is mistaken, as politicians around the world are clamping down on tax evasion in the wake of the ‘Great Recession’. British politicians have launched a campaign against tax havens in the Commonwealth, such as Bermuda and the Isle of Man. American and German politicians have publicly criticized Irish banks for allowing companies like Facebook and Google to escape millions in taxes, and the US Justice Department has filed lawsuits against Swiss banks that knowingly shelter the money of US citizens and corporations. Whether a moral awakening or domestic financial and political pressure inspired this recent initiative is immaterial, as politicians are taking a stand against tax havens.

…stop voting, stop pretending. Wake up. Be in reality now—time to be in reality now. Why vote? We know it’s not going to make any difference. We know that already…” (5:50)

The question of whether “my vote counts” appears every election season; journalists write articles about the statistical value of each vote. For instance, statements like “your vote has a 1:10,000,000 chance of determining who is elected president” deter the average American from casting a ballot. One may be left thinking that their vote will be inconsequential in choosing elected officials or changing the current political paradigm. Yes, the political system might be broken, but not participating in the electoral system is an ineffective and irresponsible method of protest. This fact impels me to criticize Brand’s argument below.

Debate:

I have three rebuttals to the idea that “voting is tacit complicity” and “voting makes no difference.” First, if Brand’s vision were to become reality, then the electoral system would come to a standstill. However, a more likely scenario is one in which those moved by Brand’s manifesto abstain from voting and those content with the status quo continue to vote. Thus, the influence of those who Brand despises is inflated. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” How can those hoping for change endorse an emboldening of the diehards’ policies? Second, voting can have dramatic effects on policy at the local level. State propositions and local laws can determine whether contentious policies, such as the status of undocumented California residents or Colorado’s policy on marijuana, can come to pass. Third, a democracy, by definition, operates via civic participation. One could argue that a democracy that privileges certain socioeconomic groups over others is not a true democracy, but one should argue that a democracy absent of voting is no democracy at all. Rather, such a state becomes an autonomous government that has fully robbed the people of their sovereignty.

Brand argues for revolution—a cultural awakening acknowledging the ill effects of capitalist democracies and favoring a socialist utopia that will equality redistribute national wealth and eliminate profit. The issue with Brand’s vision, as Paxman notes, is that a governmental body is required to redistribute national wealth. And a government of unelected officials in complete command of national wealth – without accountability – is a terrifying prospect. One only needs to look at the Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, Laotian models, to name a few, to see that a government’s adoption of socialism is easier said than done.

Brand cites Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as inspiration: “the desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.” I disagree. The desire to change, and hopefully better, the community through civil service is honorable, not incriminating. Closing the political door to a future generation of leaders who may have undergone Brand’s “cultural awakening” because of the failures of current leaders is downright irresponsible. The current British-American political paradigm is wrought with problems, but socio-political activism is not one of them. Of all people, Brand should recognize this reality.