What do a minister, a rabbi and a nun have in common? In the case of myself, Reverend David Schilling of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sister Estrella Castalone of Talitha Kum, it is the fierce desire to see an end to modern slavery. David’s organization harnesses the power of socially responsible investing and shareholder resolutions to demand that corporations eliminate slavery from their supply chains. Sister Estrella heads an international coalition of orders of religious women who fight trafficking and bring comfort and support to its survivors. And Rabbis for Human Rights-North America is the moral conscience of the American Jewish community, mobilizing our members to speak out against this largely invisible human rights atrocity.
Last week, thanks to the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See and St. Thomas University, we spoke together in Rome to ask how faith communities, government, non-profits and the business sector can work together to end slavery. “Building Bridges of Freedom: Public-Private Partnerships to End Modern Slavery” brought together leaders from all these constituencies to share knowledge, promote best practices, and to stratigize about coalitions to fight human trafficking and modern slavery. We were challenged: How can faith communities do more than just provide services to victims? What corporations are leaders for transparency in supply chains and what legislation is needed to ensure that others follow? How do we engage the human rights community at large to focus more on the problem of slavery? How can we work together to be most effective in a time when resources are stretched?
Let’s not use euphemisms when talking about the problem. Not slave-like conditions, not low wages or lack of benefits, but slavery. Slavery may be illegal everywhere, including for nearly 150 years here in the United States, but it flourishes. More than 800,000 to 2 million people are trafficked across borders each year, including nearly 20,000 to the United States. Add to this number the millions of people held as forced prostitution, child soldiers, indentured domestic servants and debt laborers within their own countries, and estimates of the number of modern slaves rises to a range of 12 million to 27 million people — and some of the activists I have spoken with think these estimates are conservative. There are more people enslaved today than at any other point in human history. And human life is cheap: You can easily buy another person for $50 to $100, a price point that makes it more effective to buy a new person than to heal a sick one. As Ambassador Luis CdeBaca said, “Human trafficking is not a crime of movement, but of exploitation.”
Slave-produced raw materials are found in the supply chains of the clothes we buy and the food we eat. I think, in our hearts, most of us realize that there are compromises being made for the low price of the food that we eat and the clothes that we buy. We chose to look away because it is overwhelming not to. I was speaking recently with another activist rabbi about an article on Trader Joe’s refusal to sign onto the Campaign for Fair Food of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which fights slavery in the Florida tomato industry. The other rabbi was troubled and she said to me: “You know, food justice is just something I don’t want to look at, because once I do, once I know the problems and human rights abuses in every stage of production, I’m just going to be paralyzed every time I go to the grocery store.” And I understand — after all, that’s what it’s like to go grocery shopping with me — and none of us want to think about child slavery in the Ivory Coast as we eat a chocolate bar. We have to acknowledge that our decision to not know is a choice, pretending for a moment that we live in a just world so that we can finish our grocery shopping and get on with our daily lives.
Jewish values demand that we protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We’re just past Passover, when we celebrate the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and the Jewish experience of having been slaves becomes the basis for the Jewish moral code. Because we were slaves, we are expected to protect the stranger in our midst — to know their heart. So important is the commandment to protect the stranger that the Torah mentions it more than the laws of keeping kosher or observing Shabbat. Victims of human trafficking are today’s stranger.
So what do we do? How do we tackle a problem that seems entrenched and unsolvable? This is where the partnership model behind the conference in Rome becomes so important. Non-profits, communities of faith, businesses and the government have to work together. For the past 10 years, American anti-slavery efforts have focused on three Ps: prevention, protection and prosecution. But to be effective and reach the heart of the causes of modern slavery, we need another P: partnership. None of us can end slavery alone.
Fighting slavery cuts across political lines. This year, Congress will pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the cornerstone of the American effort to end slavery at home and overseas, and it is a bipartisan piece of legislation, representing a moral consensus: Slavery is wrong, and we should not benefit from unpaid labor.
If we do this together, we will face our responsibility toward the most vulnerable members of our society. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 54b) that any who can protest against something wrong in the whole world and does not speak up, is accountable together with all citizens of the world. We cannot feign ignorance any longer, especially not in today’s interconnected global community. Older systems of morality privileged those who were close at hand because one’s sphere of influence was more limited — we weren’t responsible for people hundreds or thousands of miles away because our choices would neither help nor hurt them.
Today, our complicity and our responsibility radiate outwards. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible” (“The Prophets,” p. 19). It is amazing to me how many victims of modern slavery have been found because an individual saw something that didn’t seem right and took responsibility. The State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons has a list of 20 steps you can take to fight slavery. It’s a great start.