Slavery saturates society. It is present in the clothes and food we buy which are made with slave-like labor. These products are soaked with the sweat and suffering of their victims. They are for sale in the high street shops, on our dining tables, in the food that we eat, worn by children in school and on the sports fields, and present in the mobile gadgets we use daily. The products of modern-day slavery are ever present, but to see them, we need to be freed from blind ignorance.
The sweatshops of Bangladesh are shocking examples of some of the 20 million trafficked humans in slave-like conditions worldwide.
Hundreds have died in factory fires and inside five-storey, poorly constructed buildings, which collapsed on them as they made the clothes we love to wear. The cocoa fields of Africa and the gold mines of Peru are slave pits where the poor are working in subhuman conditions for less than a survival allowance, and some for none at all.
Of all the movements that has challenged such global injustice and exploitation, the Fair Trade movement is the practical way anyone can help change the global injustice by buying fair trade products.
But they too are encouraged to become true advocates of global justice and equality.
We might think that slavery ended with the American civil war, or when it was banned by the British parliament through the work of great Christian campaigners against slavery, like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson and their supporters.
For thousands of years, slavery was common practice; it was condoned and a source of revenue for most religions. Churches and the ruling elite of England, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and others, in cahoots with plantation managers and the ruling families of the Americas, all grew rich on the slavery of the captured and enslaved Africans and native peoples.
Humans have a propensity to dominate and exploit their weaker and vulnerable fellow humans. Sadly, history shows that so-called Christians did it with harsh and cruel torture, some while reading the Bible. That Christians could enthusiastically embrace slavery to enrich themselves was and is a mind-boggling contradiction.
The modern slavery behind much international trade and in our everyday products calls us to question our understanding and practice of our faith. The Quakers took the most vigorous stand against slavery, to their great credit.
In the past, church-going slavers, ship captains, and their financial backers paid lip service to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Shameless hypocrisy was worn with pride. Today, secular society has more openly rejected and ignored Christ’s words and example. As a result, thinly disguised modern slavery, as found in brothels, for example, has a sheen of legality. The trafficking of persons that supplies the victims is generally ignored or dealt with lightly in many countries.
There is arguably as little compassion, social and economic justice and equality today as in days when slave ships brought the African captives to the Americas and returned back with the produce of their labor: sugar, cotton, tobacco, gold. There are as many, if not more, exploited and trafficked workers disguised as legitimate employees today, as in the past.
As many as thirteen million Africans were captured, chained, beaten, abused, and enslaved. They were transported like animals and perhaps 1.3 million died on the way in the fetid holds of the slave ships, designed and built to hold as many chained prisoners as space would allow. Their families were torn apart; they were agonizingly separated from wives and children, exiled to the American colonies and their horrific slave plantations to provide products for Western capitalism and commerce for European citizens.
The wealth of much of Europe was founded on the labor of enslaved Africans. Churches built in the 19th century were possible because of slave trade earnings, which is truly a shame and abomination. All prospered at the expense of the enslaved people. They rejoiced in the fruits of slavery and thanked God for their wealth and so-called ‘good fortune.’ What God did they worship?
Today, 20 million people are trafficked into forced, unpaid labor or on the dollar-a-day survival menu. Slavery has not gone away. The greed for riches produced by enslaving our fellow humans, exploiting them along with the murderous trade in arms and chemical weapons, and life-destroying drugs dominates our global trade. It is clear that governments with a human rights protection agenda are not doing nearly enough, and are having little impact.
True Christians must step into the gap, take a stand and campaign for the gospel values to change society and end slavery. What greater cause than to work for an end to social and racial injustice, bonded labor and slavery and the trade in persons? Putting faith into action is a life worth living; anything else is indifference and apathy in the face of evil.