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Do You Know Where Your Everyday Items Come From?

How purchasing power can help end slavery.

Key points

  • Most industries are vulnerable to human slavery in their supply chains.
  • Individuals and organizations have purchasing power that can be readily used to deter slave labor.
  • With greater knowledge of supply chain vulnerabilities, buyers can avoid products made with slave labor.

Modern slavery exists on a scale that’s hard to imagine. According to the United Nations, more than 40 million people are enslaved. That is, they work in situations where the use of threats, violence, coercion, deception, or abuse of power renders individuals unable to leave or refuse to work.

Despite the massive scale of modern slavery, individuals as well as organizations have a powerful role to play in ending the abuse. It's a matter of knowing where their goods and services come from. Take the example of John McCarthy, who heads the Australian Catholic Anti-slavery Network (ACAN),

Purchasing Power

Catholic organizations in Australia spend $6 billion a year. ACAN has mapped the areas in the supply chains of these organizations. Some goods and services are at especially high risk for having been produced using slave labor, and the organization now know which ones they are. They can use their purchasing power to shut down the offenders.

In fact, ACAN’s mapping shows that to a surprising–if not shocking­–degree, modern slavery permeates the lives of virtually everyone. The pervasiveness of slavery in today’s supply chains is revealed in a series of questions McCarthy routinely aks:

  • How many people own a telephone, computer, clothing, or shoes?
  • How many drink coffee or tea?
  • How many wear jewelry or make-up?
  • How many buy seafood, pet food, meat, fruit, vegetables, or eat fast food?

Slave Labor in Supply Chains

Each of these industries likely has a product that is manufactured with slave labor. As McCarthy points out, there’s risk of slave labor in almost all industries.

From electronics and high-tech industries, to automotive, steel, mining, agriculture, coffee, seafood products, the list is almost limitless. People in slavery can also be found in service industries such as cleaning, security, construction, or container ships.

Migrants are especially vulnerable to debt-bondage from recruitment fees and can become trapped in places where they don’t know how to get help. Or help isn’t available where they are.

Ending Participation in Slave Labor

As chair of ACAN, McCarthy focuses on the risks for slavery in the supply chains of Catholic organizations. More than 40 Catholic nonprofits are part of this effort; 75 percent of the entities McCarthy and his colleagues surveyed reported that significant amounts of the money they were spending went to industries with high exposure to modern slavery.

Now that the organizations are aware of their inadvertent complicity in slave labor, they are working on cleaning up their supply chains. The impact has already been far-reaching.

As McCarthy points out, “These large Catholic organizations have a significant procurement spend. Thirty-five Catholic entities had supply chains that procured more than $6 billion of goods and services from 16,000 suppliers.”

Two categories of spending jumped out as being particularly vulnerable to trafficking: the $1.06 billion spent in the building and construction sector and $1.05 billion on medical supplies.

ACAN, used with permission
Slave labor occurs in the construction industry.
Source: ACAN, used with permission

“We don’t rely on anecdotal evidence anymore,” McCarthy said. He and his colleagues now know where the major risks are and where to focus their effort.

Schools and hospitals in the Catholic organizations, for example, can force their suppliers to cease using slave labor—or take their business elsewhere.

McCarthy is putting into practice one of his favorite quotes from Pope Francis: “Buying goods is not just a commercial matter. Our purchasing habits and decisions have deep moral dimensions as well.”

McCarthy is proud of the impact ACAN is having by demanding that items that they purchase are not produced with slave labor. “By working together we can more quickly reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to eradicate modern slavery in our generation.”

The goal is to help realize Pope Francis’ vision for a world where every person can live in freedom and dignity.


Australian Catholic Anti-Slavery Network