How Many Slaves Work For You?

I’ve been thinking a lot about medieval slavery, lately, especially in Venice (the place I study). I’m interested in commodity and the movement of objects, but unfree people are mostly invisible in my texts. I know they are there, because I know something about the medieval Mediterranean economy, but they aren’t appearing in my sources (which are mostly religious, not economic. Other forms of commodity appear though). Venice, over time, will become a major player in the Mediterranean slave trade and I’m interested in seeing how that emerges in the culture.

Yesterday, via this piece on slavery today, I began thinking about the invisible nature of slavery for so many people in the western world. The piece opens:

The average price of a slave has decreased during the past 200 years, according to Kevin Bales, a leading abolitionist who has written several books about modern-day slavery.
In 1809, the average price of a slave was $40,000 when adjusted to today’s money. In 2009, the average price of a slave was $90, Bales says.

The pieces leads to, which includes an app allowing you to go through your life and figure out about how much slave labor is involved in your life. For my family of four, the answer was 60.

I don’t how their app works, how accurate they are, but as they say:

So, how many slaves work for you? “If you took 100 smartphones and lined them up, we could tell you with near 100 percent probability that on average, each one of those phones had at least 3.2 people exploited in the making of the phone,” said Dillon. “Mine might have had zero, yours might have had ten, but that’s not the point.”

So yeah, it might not really be 60, it might be 30, or 90. But it’s not zero. And I don’t know their definition of “slave,” but as a historian, I also know that doesn’t matter. Degrees of unfree can vary, and do, over time.

We are all complicit in modern slave labor and there’s no real way to live in the globalized world and not benefit from it. The only solution, as far as I can tell, is to push companies to be aware of their supply chains and to demand more equitable labor practices.

Do the survey. Think about what you might change.

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