Wednesday, October 28

A Franciscan Perspective on Business, Globalization and Human Trafficking

Earlier this year I attended a talk delivered by Fr. David Couturier, OFM Cap, who spoke on the growing issue of human trafficking within an increasingly globalized world, and his points bear repeating here. Globalization is essentially the notion that our world ought to become – and is becoming – a global community. More to the point, Fr. David defined Globalization as the “ability to transport goods, services, products and people faster and farther is the mega-phenomenon of business with great benefits: cheaper products, more available products and potential to raise standards of living.” But, he noted, “globalization has a downside. If you can transport people, you can traffic people.” In the United States, slavery is commonly held to have ended with the Trans-Atlantic slavery. However, Fr. David notes that he recently spoke to a young girl from Buffalo who was used for sex in human trafficking - Amber. One night she was kidnapped and in a short amount of time, was given drugs and became addicted, and was put into the sex slave business all across Western New York.

Amber spent her days being watched and controlled. Working and living under harsh conditions, she now suffers from PTSD. Amber was in a living hell - “a hell without doors or exits.” She eventually escaped, but it took two weeks for her to get the care she needed. This kind of story is found all across the country. There are more slaves today in the United States than in any time, even more so than in the Trans-Atlantic Slavery of the 19th century. The difference between then and now is in the complexity, in the disguises and in the protection within the US as well as in the complicity of our own lives. We are all, it seems, complicit to some degree. Although globalization can and has led to many good things, it can also lead to modern forms of slavery.

Fr. David explained that human trafficking was the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a human person... through the use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, giving payments or benefits to a person who is in control of the victim... [all] for the purpose of exploitation... to include prostitution of others, forced labor, slavery or similar practices.” One of the major points that stuck out to me the most was the chocolate industry, popular particularly around Halloween, Easter and St. Valentine’s Day. Evidently, much of the chocolate comes from cocoa plants of Ghana and the Ivory Coast of Africa. Many children were used as slave labor, and being beaten, were used to satisfy the sweet tooth of many. Children as young as 10-15 were being forced into this, being paid low wages or no wages at all.

What Fr. David said hit home - “We are the face of human trafficking... Everyday we are eating, wearing, walking and talking slavery. Every one of us, every day, touches and wears and eats products tainted with slavery.” Thinking about where my clothes, my cellular device, my food, my blankets and many other products comes from is revealing. From a cursory look, a few clothing items say “Made in Haiti,” “Made in China,” “Made in Taiwan” and elsewhere. Fr. David asked, “Do we really care as Americans where our goods are coming from as long as it is fast, cheap and available?” One is inclined to think it is because the United States is a very individualistic, hedonistic and minimalistic culture. As a whole, Americans tend to think on a more self-centered, pleasure-based level than in concern for those who are making their products.

The final question, an examination of conscience, is what calls for thought as well as action: how willing am I to make this problem of human trafficking upfront and personal in my own life? How willing am I to work with others to eradicate slave labor from my home and dinner table? That question is a tough question on many levels. It is a convicting question. The Franciscan tradition within Christianity calls for several aspects of response: a respect for human dignity, joy and peace, community, generosity, friendship, solidarity. It calls, essentially, for “compassionate action.” This is not simply an abstract theological concept floating around in the written materials, but a living and active threat to the dignity of the human person that needs to be addressed. If I was asked how I was to make this problem personal in my own life, I would admit not knowing how to fully answer. Awareness would be one way. Human trafficking is such an overwhelming problem, the first question one would ask is “where do I begin?” Being aware of where each of my products comes from is a good start. What to do from there may depend on the company. Do I simply stop shopping somewhere? Do I begin purchasing other products? Would my not-shopping make any difference if the products continue coming?

One of the final points that comes to mind here is the difference between charity and justice. Consider the somewhat graphic image of bodies floating down a river - through charity, the villagers along the river brought the bodies to shore, nursed some to health and had to bury the others. Each day this process would continue, but no one bothered to ask or find out where the bodies were coming from - that would be justice. Social action would be justice. So the question we will have to ask as we now consciously move forward with this information and integrate it into our lives is, “to what extent do we get involved and not simply stop making the purchases, but act out Social Justice for the betterment of our fellow brother and sister?” How do we carry out compassionate action? 

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