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Nov 27, 2012 | Kendra Penry

Labor Trafficking and Our Food Supply

January 1, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the document which students in the U.S. learn “ended” slavery. As Americans celebrate this accomplishment, we also must recognize that it did not, in fact, end slavery. Slavery is alive and well today in our country and around the world. It is in the candy you hand out at Halloween, the electronics you buy, the coffee you drink on your way to work, and the tomatoes on your hamburger. It is a sobering reality that we can change, but it requires that we understand what slavery looks like today and our role in causing it.

Anitha, from Rwanda, was picking tea instead of going to school.

Photo: World Vision Australia


[Diolog MagazineModern day slavery is another term for “human trafficking.” This term first appeared around the year 2000, when the federal law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), was passed. The TVPA states that human trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” (8 U.S.C. § 1101) This crime is very complex. There is little an untrained civilian can do to intervene directly since rescues must be conducted by law enforcement, and victim services must be provided by trained professionals. This can be frustrating for those of us with a heart for service and passion for justice. We can focus on what we can change—our own choices that fuel this industry. 

Labor trafficking accounts for 68 percent of the total victims of modern day slavery. Three out of every 1,000 people in the world today are in forced labor and exploitation.1 These are staggering statistics. It is almost paralyzing to think how large the problem is until you consider the equally staggering statistic that in the U.S., private consumption, or what individuals purchase on a daily basis, accounts for 70 percent of our gross domestic product.2  If all of that consumption was done thoughtfully and with the freedom of the worker who made, harvested or created the product in mind, the impact on global labor and basic human rights would be enormous. But how do you do that? One of the best strategies is “Fair Trade.”


Fair Trade is a system of exchange that honors producers, communities, consumers and the environment. Fair Trade reduces the risk of trafficking for producers of primary products and assures the consumer that their product was not made with slave labor. Today, Fair Trade works with more than 1.2 million farming families in 70 developing countries. Currently, the Fair Trade network certifies coffee, tea, herbs, cocoa, fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh flowers, sugar, beans and grains, oils and butters, nuts, honey, spices, wine, apparel and handicrafts. 


The principles to certify Fair Trade include:  

  • A fair price for products: The guaranteed minimum price attempts to cover the cost of production and a living wage in the local context.
  • Investment in people and communities: Fair Trade premiums are invested in development projects that benefit entire communities.
  • Environmental sustainability: Harmful chemicals and Genetically Modified Organisms are prohibited.
  • Economic empowerment of small-scale producers: Fair Trade encourages a cooperative system where each member owns a portion of the business, has equal say in decisions, and enjoys equal returns from the market. 
  • Fair labor conditions including the workers’ right to freedom of association, safe working conditions and the guarantee of no slave or child labor.


So how do you know if the product you are purchasing is “fair?” Fair Trade is recognizable through a system of labels such as:


These symbols are distributed by a neutral third party that verifies all of the qualifications listed above. 


Buying locally or any method where you purchase directly from the producer (e.g., at farmers’ markets) is another way to guarantee you are not buying products made by slaves. 


But there is more you can do about trafficking. You can request your faith community, school or work place to switch to Fair Trade coffee. Imagine the impact on the global market if all faith communities in the U.S. used Fair Trade coffee and made a statement not just in words, but in actions to say they will not support the exploitation of human beings. Additionally, you can advocate for change with your legislators. Do you know your legislators’ stance on this issue? You can ask them to stand against slavery and pass the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Reauthorization Act3  or other necessary legislation. The Campaign for Fair Food run by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW) is another way to make a difference. They are campaigning for change in the way food is produced here in the U.S. where agricultural labor, especially migrant labor, is still exploited in many of the same ways that we thought were eradicated 150 years ago. CIW leads a vibrant campaign to get grocery stores and restaurants to source their products fairly. You can join their efforts by visiting


To stand against modern day slavery, educate yourself and take action where you are able. Everyone has the right to live free, and we can guarantee that right or we can continue to create demand for slave labor. Which will you choose?


Penry is with the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. The ILO states that about 21 million people are in slavery around the world today, more than any time in human history. Gross domestic product in 2011 was USD15094.00 billion, according to a report published by the World Bank making GDP value of the U.S. roughly equivalent to 24% percent of the world economy ( Trafficking Victims’ Protection Reauthorization Act.