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We all buy slave-made products: here's how we avoid feeling guilty

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We consume the products of slavery every day. All of us. Today’s globalised supply chains make it is almost impossible to avoid goods or services free of the fingerprints of slavery. Electronic gadgets, clothing, fish, cocoa and cane sugar are the products mostly likely to be tainted.

In contrast to state-sanctioned slave ownership in the the past, modern slavery does not involve a person being a legal possession.

Instead it involves any situation of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave, because of threats, violence, coercion, deception or abuse of power. The Global Slavery Index estimates this applies to 15.4 million people (mostly women) in forced marriages, and a further 24.9 million people in forced labour.

Yet just because modern slaves are not kept in literal chains, does this justify being oblivious to it?

What of the responsibility of consumers to care about how a product was made, rather than choosing the cheapest product, no questions asked?

Our research, based on in-depth interviews with 40 consumers, shows the strategies people use to shrug off feeling guilty about their purchasing decisions.

Age restrictions

One of our interviewees explained how she empathised with children who were exploited, but not necessarily adults. A “grown man”, she told us, had “other options”. Even if an adult was working for less than the minimum wage, she said, “they are earning a bit of money, they’re happy with that […] so I don’t classify it as modern slavery”.

This was a common approach in “slave/not-slave” categorising. We use “rules of thumb” – including assessments of the person’s ability to exercise choice and to speak up for themselves – to decide if they are legitimate causes for our concern or obligation.

Blame their culture

Another tactic to diminish feelings concern is to perceive others as having moral sensibilities different to our own. It is a form of cultural relativism: what would not be okay here (for me), is okay over there (for them).

One participant expressed it like this: “if a sweatshop factory is working within the rules and regulations of its host country,” he said, “then by virtue of the ethics of that country it is not morally wrong.”

Somehow they deserve it

One interviewee blamed modern slaves for not working hard enough to avoid being exploited.

“They have the opportunity to go to school and to get a proper job,” she said. “If they don’t take it, it’s their choice. If they don’t do anything about it, it is because they just don’t want to.”

Seeing modern slavery as something victims bring on themselves lends itself to reducing the issue to a brutal calculus: “it’s a cost-benefit analysis,” another participant said. “There are these problems, but I get so much benefit from it.”

We’re all slaves, really

We can also trivialise the experience of slavery by suggesting, for example, that we ourselves are “enslaved” (for example to our job, or to technology), or that the working conditions of some slaves aren’t that bad.

What is to be done

Our research is a step towards raising awareness of modern slavery to the point where we can no longer take a deny-all-knowledge approach. We need to expose the justifications going on in our heads for what they are – neutralisations to shut down moral feeling.

There are many stakeholders with a role in eradicating the modern slavery - governments, businesses and transnational organisations. But consumers hold a powerful position in the equation.

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