The Economy of Justice and Mercy
by Melody Tan
Rich and sweet, it can ooze out delectably from a beautifully-crafted molten cake, although I enjoy it best when a solid piece simply melts in my mouth, transforming into a sticky, gooey mess. Then there’s its sibling in hot, liquid form, best savoured on a cold evening, preferably with a wood fire burning in the room and a good book in my hand.
Chocolate. One of life’s simple treats—and one of the world’s most exploitive industries.
The main producers of cocoa, from which chocolate is made, are the West African countries of Ivory Coast and Ghana, areas not exactly known for fair industrial relations or the respect of workers’ rights. The harvesting of cocoa pods, which houses the beans, is a labour-intensive affair and one done most frequently by young children whose families are struggling to eke out a living with their little cocoa farms.
According to Fortune magazine, there are an estimated 2.1 million West African children doing the dangerous and physically taxing work of harvesting cocoa. They are denied an education, are forced to work long hours without pay, and expected to wield adult-sized machetes and haul their own weight in bags of beans.
The Harkin-Engel Protocol, prompted by a condemning documentary by the BBC that reported the use of enslaved children in the production of cocoa, was signed and witnessed by the heads of eight major chocolate companies in September 2001, with the aim of ending child labour on cocoa farms in West Africa. And while the number of trafficked children who are held as slaves appears to have fallen, with the average cocoa farmer still living below the international poverty line (despite the chocolate industry being worth some $US100 billion and prices of cocoa surging 13 percent last year), it’s not difficult to understand why unpaid children still make up the bulk of its workforce.
Such exploitation isn’t limited to West African nations. The 2016 Global Slavery Index found that 45.8 million people live in slavery across 167 countries. That’s the entire population of Spain, or two slaves out of every 350 people in the world!
The Walk Free organisation, which released the Global Slavery Index, defines modern slavery as “when one person possesses or controls another person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of their individual liberty, with the intention of exploiting that person through their use, profit, transfer or disposal.”
Many think such exploitation involves free labour, but I would go so far to say that it even involves “paid” labour, especially in instances when the salary is in no way proportionate to the work required. And neither is the chocolate or food industry the only culprit in utilising slavery—the manufacturing, construction and hospitality industries can be just as guilty.
In 2013 Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Bangladesh, collapsed, killing some 1130 people and injuring 2500, giving it the disreputable title of being the deadliest garment-factory accident in history. But besides being an indictment of the country’s dubious construction quality, it highlighted the squalid conditions textile and garment workers are forced to work in.
The clincher? These workers were making clothing for multi-million-dollar international brand names such as Benetton, Monsoon Accessorize, Mango and Walmart—companies who obviously chose to focus on the profit margins that could be gained from low production costs, while ignoring the exploitive nature of cheap labour and its associated less-than-ideal working conditions.
It’s a tale most of us would be familiar with; stories of the high human cost of “cheap” and mass-produced clothing. The workers in this factories, more commonly referred to as sweatshops, endure long hours, low wages and other violations of labour—and even human—rights. Some are only allowed a certain number of toilet breaks, exposed to toxic substances or use dangerous machinery without adequate protection, and worse, face very real threats of sexual assaults and harassment.
You would be wrong, however, to think these issues happen only overseas in developing countries. In April, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote about east African housekeeper Susan, who was brought from Africa by her Australian employer when the family relocated to Sydney. She was forced to work unpaid 18-hour days and sleep under the dining room table with three dogs. She was given a single bag of rice to eat and had her passport taken away. Fortunately for her, she managed to escape thanks to an unlocked padlock on the back gate. Today, she lives as a free woman and works as an assistant in nursing.
Susan’s story is a tragic one involving human trafficking, but as earlier mentioned, even those who have “voluntarily” chosen their “paid” jobs can be exploited. You only have to speak to a chambermaid at most hotels in the very city you live in to learn that some are paid based on the number of rooms they clean. That may mean cleaning three dirty rooms an hour (24 rooms in an average eight-hour work day) in order to make minimum wage.
This is the most sinister kind of slavery, for it appears “fair”, but it’s merely a subterfuge to maximize employers’ profits.
Regardless of their success rates, the chocolate industry’s Harkin-Engel Protocol and the fashion industry response to the Rana Plaza incident to take better control over its supply chain, are commendable in that corporations appear to be taking steps to improve the livelihoods of others.
But organisations should not be the only ones held accountable here. After all, by creating demand, each of us is somewhat complicit in the actions and decisions of these businesses. As Belgian politician and European Commissioner for Trade, Karel De Gucht, told British newspaper, The Independent, in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza incident, “I think the customers should take a bit of responsibility. Everybody is now screaming scandal but we are very pleased with the cheap T-shirts. I don’t think people working for a whole month for $40 in unacceptable health and safety conditions, paying with their lives, is acceptable.”
Christians have an even bigger burden to bear: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8; italics added).
Willingly endangering the lives of young children so we can enjoy a chocolate bar is not “acting justly”.
Purchasing a brand new top for $10 knowing it perpetuates the cycle of poverty and misery for the person who made it is not “loving mercy”.
What we choose to spend on our money on impacts lives somewhere, somehow, and can reflect on our higher calling to act justly and love mercy.
Some may argue wages aren’t a matter of justice or mercy and that it’s simply economics, but if that were true, perhaps it’s time we took a long, hard look at the capitalist nature of our economy. This isn’t an argument about paying an employee a salary proportionate to their job scope while ensuring maximum benefits for the employer, as the modern economy prescribes. This is simply about not taking advantage of someone and ignoring—or even adding to—their suffering while denying their basic labour and human rights.
When economy dictates we prey on the weak in order to come out on top, we are neither seeing justice nor mercy. After all, even the Bible, which may appear to condone slavery in the Old Testament times, provided slaves back then with far more rights and privileges than those of today. For starters, there was an actual end to their service (Exodus 21:2–4) and physical abuse was never tolerated (verses 26 and 27).
So do we simply stop eating chocolate, wearing clothes and staying in hotels while on holidays? Or are fair trade and sweatshop-free products the only things Christians can and should purchase? Do we have to scrutinise the origins, supply chain and business practices of every single item?
While they may be good habits to cultivate, the reality is, if we were to strictly follow such routines for our lives, it is easy to predict it won’t be long before we tire of the process, suffering from analysis paralysis or even worse, give up and embrace apathy.
The other challenge we face is an ironically self-perpetuated one. Thanks to the longstanding practice of exploiting others, we are used to a marketplace of cheap products. Deciding to pay people a fair wage can feel like an expensive one change. Suddenly, we think we are paying more but getting less, and while many of us may not be living hand to mouth, the extra costs can add up.
It’s not an easy solution, but perhaps one of the first places to start is in Matthew: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (6:19) and 1 Timothy: “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it” (6:7).
We live in a world where we’re used to buying “stuff” without much thought: If it looks “cute”, if we like it, if we are feeling bad, if we are feeling good… for a whole gamut of reasons, we inevitably find ourselves coming home from a trip to the shopping centre with bags of stuff we want, but don’t actually need.
Developing counterculture habits such as this will take time and guidance, but we have a generous God who will all too willingly give us all the wisdom we need (James 1:5). And when we cut out the clutter and all the unnecessary stuff in our lives, we may actually be free to research the products we do need and be able to afford to act justly and love mercy.
Melody Tan works as an assistant editor at Signs of the Times magazine in Australia, and is about to be a new parent.
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