“I couldn’t find my son.”
The father, crouched down and half-sitting in what looked like an incredibly uncomfortable position, spoke in a long-burning anguish.
3 years earlier he had lost his little boy.
The son had been playing outside the last time his mother saw him. Next thing she knew, he disappeared. No trace, no sign. His father, away at work, came home immediately to begin searching frantically.
The area, the woods, the neighbors, the nearby villages — none of them had seen his son.
Days turned into months that stretched into years.
“I felt like I was going mad. My wife seemed to be going mad as well. We couldn’t find him anywhere.”
The camera began panning the area, their home village in western India, showing the depth of poverty and the obvious the lack of food and clothing.
Yet even so, their dignity is loud and clear, despite being so poor. They understand that not everything that costs money brings happiness.
They know what’s valuable — the value of their sons and daughters.
The one thing they hold near and dear costs no money and is really their most prized possession — their children. Birthed in love, living testimonies of their own lives. That is the real treasure they carry.
Yet how cruel that these possessions that are the center of their worlds are live targets. Targets by those who live for greed and exploitation for their own gains.
No, it’s not the money, not the beans, not the farm animals they want.
That son. That’s who the slave traders want.
Humans, unlike drugs or other material possessions, can be bought, sold and used many times over the course of a lifetime.
If you want to have a financially successful career, human slavery is the most ludicrous industry yet.
This boy, one of the 27 million, lost his life and freedom and became one of those numbers. Stolen away and transported on a two-day journey south of their village in India, he was enslaved in the Indian carpet belt where 16 millions pounds of carpets go to the UK alone every year.
And he was only 6 years old.
To some, that age means he is vulnerable and meant to be cared for and protected.
To others, that age means he is an opportunity for many more years of gain and wealth.
What is slavery?
In this documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation, they described slavery as being “locked away, held against their will, and enforced by violence.”
And in this specific region where this boy was kidnapped, there are over 4000-5000 children missing.
5000 parents on the verge of madness out of grief.
5000 innocent eyes.
5000 little creative hands.
Slavery targets the poor.
Why? Because nobody cares.
Typically, only the poor care for each other. And yet they can’t afford to act on all the care they carry and find resources to ensure justice for their lives.
Nobody in the city or world scene would notice if they’re gone.
It should not be surprising when silent voices are silenced.
Exploitation is simply silencing voices until they are no more.
Silence though is perspective. The poor already have voices — and real, valuable ones. Perhaps we say, “I never heard them!” And Jesus says, “Don’t be surprised — the poor you will always have with you. Listen to them.”
What slavery looks like
I watched in awe at the awful revelations. Children tied to carpet looms. Forced to work for 14 hours a day. Beaten for slowing down or speaking up. Never allowed to leave the building. They had to urinate from the rooftop.
And they are beautiful rugs, for sure. Perhaps like this one:
Of course slave markets don’t make shoddy products. If they did there wouldn’t be any demand for them. No, slave-made products camouflage very well into the world market.
Beautiful but silent.
And that rug — I was planning on buying one like it. A few months ago I was in the middle of fixing up my house, finally buying real furniture. And I could consider myself a thoughtful consumer! I do research, I compare prices, I’m not (that much) compulsive. When I found a rug I really really wanted, I was in the “let me think for a long time before making any impulsive decisions” state.
And it was attractive to me because, well, rugs are expensive and this was one relatively affordable. Geez, for anything decent it seems like you had to pay an arm and a leg.
Until I realized that some do pay an arm and leg.
A few days later I walked away from the film, enlightened but trying oh-so-hard to resist. But I really need this rug! I can’t afford a “socially responsible” rug.
I looked up the specs. My rug was made in India. Then I would see this boy’s face, the dirty floor in the loom room where he worked, the 3 years of life he lost in order to make my floor for the next several years attractive.
I had to find out.
Maybe my rug was good to go. But I wanted to at least try to find out. So I contacted people. I contacted Wayfair, a company I have purchased from before and who had claims to my desired rug. I had no idea how and if they would respond, but this is what I wrote:
Good morning, I have recently made several purchases from Wayfair, of which I’ve been very satisfied. I have been planning on purchasing a rug here and I noticed that it is made in India. I am involved with anti-trafficking efforts in Chicago and will soon be going to Nepal/India to work with women and children who have been trafficked, and I’ve become aware of the pervasiveness of child slavery in the carpet looms of India. I looked on your site to try to find if there was evidence that these rugs are made with social responsibility, but I could not find it anywhere. Before I purchase I want to know where the rugs were bought and that there has been research conducted to ensure that fair wage and labor have gone into the making of your rugs.
And here was their reply:
Hi Angela, This rug is shipped directly from the manufacturer, NuLoom. Regrettably they were not able to provide me with any credentials regarding social responsibility nor was I able to discover anything about them, one way or the other, online. We do not require the manufacturers we work with to be socially responsible, although we obviously would prefer it if they were. Given the lack of information on NuLoom, perhaps you would prefer to purchase a rug that is manufactured by Jaipur Rugs? They are socially responsible as indicated here, and SKU JCJ1645 is similar to the NuLoom rug you are looking at.
Notice I used the words child slavery, and they used the words socially responsible.
Notice that they don’t require their manufacturers to be socially responsible.
And that’s when I realized having a product made that was socially responsible, a product made without slavery, is a nice option at best.
I read this email and was drawn back in thought. I looked out the window, distracted by the view of the Sears Tower from my cozy chair (that I ironically bought from Wayfair). The linen curtains I recently purchased gently blew in the wind and I was reminded how much I love their color and simplicity.
My eye caught the tag. I reached down and held it closer: “Made in India.”
Ah! Curtains too??
Again, the same email but this time to CB2 (Create and Barrel). And this has repeated several times as I’ve started to purchase an item yet realized it was made in an area where an over-abundance of slavery exists. I’m like, “Do I freaking have to go through my whole house?!?”
Once you see something, you can’t unsee it.
We could take this down all sorts of paths. For instance, why do I insist on buying the cheapest product? So that I can have a higher margin to live on. If I have $20 I could spend all of it on an IMAX movie showing…. or I can go to the cheap David’s theater nearby with the broken seats, but I can see a movie AND go out afterwards for late night dinner.
I am no economics expert, but I learned that economics is simply decision making. And here’s the decision now before me, a life habit-changing question:
I can buy an inexpensive product that is cheapened due to free forced labor and have more to spend on other part of my life.
Or I can buy a slightly more expensive product that paid the person making the product and thus have less to spend on my life.
That is the million dollar question: which one do you value more?
Money. Or people.
Is there anything I can do about human slavery?
I understand — it’s overwhelming. It feels shameful.
But remember this — we will do anything to hide from shame, our own and others. And I think just being aware of that fact will help us to not run but to sit. Sit with the difficulty. And that brings me to my first suggestion:
Feel deeply and express sorrow over these realities. We’re so quick to jump to solutions that sometimes we forget that grieving is important. That it is proper. That it is honorable.
Lament for what is done and what you can’t fix. Feel empathy without conclusions. It’s one of the most humane, dignified actions you can take.
2. Write emails to the companies you buy most often from.
Since most of what we buy is made overseas, you can assume that there is a possibility that something you own was made as a result of slave labor.
Here are some common industries fueled by slaves, specifically child slaves: chocolate, carpets, bricks, clothing, shrimp, diamonds, cotton, rubber, coal, rice and pornography.
Will this change slavery in a day? Nope.
Yet would you assume then that means you have no responsibility?
Maybe it’s just me, but I believe that if we consume or use something pretty regularly, then we should at least express some basic intelligence in discovering the origins.
That why I think sending emails is an easy ask and first step. Every company, from corporate to local business, has some sort of customer service email listed on their website. So then you can…
Step 1. Copy and paste that into a new email message.
Step 2. Write a subject line, like, “Question.”
Step 3. Write a few sentences explaining why you’re emailing: “I’ve been learning more about human slavery in your industry, specifically child slavery. I wanted to know if you know the origins of this product I bought from you [or am thinking to buy from you]. Are your vendors required to conduct social responsibility?”
Step 4. Press send.
And that’s it for now. They may be like Wayfair and say, “We don’t require social responsibility.” Or they may send you detailed reports and regulations of how they enforce fair trade within their organization.
And either way, that may be all you do.
But you might start a conversation in that organization. You might get one other person thinking about what their company does across the ocean.
At the end of the day, we want our corporations to thrive along with the ones that make their products for them.
3. Buy from fair trade companies.
I met the founders of Matano via Instagram where we traded (fairly) thoughts about one of my recent blog posts. I came to learn more about their new start-up and passion for sports apparel that is ethically made. Since this whole fair-trade world was becoming something of a newer discovery for myself, I was encouraged to see other people who didn’t see social responsibility as an option.
It was just a way they desired to live life. And so they decided to bring other people along.
That’s really all we do. We have values, they turn into passions, and, as the opportunity comes up, it partners with something tangible.
So it’s not just sports clothing.
It’s about free people.
And sports clothing is simply the vehicle.
Back them on Kickstarter, buy one of their items, and or just follow their business. I think we all need active initiators around us who practice and risk for a belief that is way bigger than themselves.
It’s just one company, a few items, and not that much dent in the universe of human slavery.
But this is just one tipping point. And with the combination of many others, perhaps we can make goodness fashionable again.