90 Days a Slave

As a part of his Oscar acceptance speech, Steve McQueen, the Director of 12 Years a Slave, dedicated the award to “all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”

I grew up learning about slavery, in relation to the way that Americans enslaved Africans, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War. When I was in Third Grade, going to a primarily black Elementary School, we went on a field trip to Baltimore, and made a stop at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. This is wildly inappropriate for a bunch of 8-year-olds, and I imagine would still be unsettling to visit today. They showed us wax replicas of torture chambers employed on slave ships, in which they would trap rowdy slaves, to “set an example,” replete with wax blood.

In my head, I treat slavery like the Holocaust… it’s something that I know happened, but that I don’t want to think about very much or very often, because it’s really really grim and really depressing. I think of those things as something in the past, and it’s easy to forget that slavery still exists.

What can we do about it? How can we changes things, besides not owning slaves ourselves?

I find it interesting sometimes to think about the delicate balance of good and evil inside every person. When evil things are socially acceptable, who among us is strong enough to know the difference? Who among us is an opportunist who will take advantage whenever possible? Many of us tread a fine line, not to mention that as a society we en masse take advantage of countries that source us with products made by slaves.

There’s a movie, The Experiment, starring Adrien Brody, which is a remake of the German film, Das Experiment, which is based on the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. The idea is that any average person, if presented with the right conditions, can be unthinkably evil. There’s also an interesting National Geographic documentary, Science of Evil, that explores the same concept. It’s pretty terrible to think of, mainly because it challenges our perceptions of ourselves as good people. I like to think that people are intelligent beings, capable of rising above our surroundings.

Nevertheless, if slavery exists in the Western world, where it certainly is no longer socially acceptable, then evil is living among us. It’s a troubling thought–there are people in our communities who have slaves. The idea of it seems so wrong, outdated, and ridiculous. A lot of the stories fit a particular mould: someone immigrates from another country with the prospect of a job and a new life, and end up trapped in servitude. What kind of person can do that to another person? I’ll tell you.

I was working for a European company in America for two years.  Two of the senior employees came from the European office, and were married with two children. Living in the expensive DC suburbs, they managed to find a nanny who would work for them for free, in exchange for a free room. She worked a government job as well, and minded the children in her free time. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? However, when they moved back to Europe, they were used to having free help. Why pay for something when you can get it for free, right? The US office had closed down, and they found a girl, a friend of mine, who had a college degree and a lot of experience nannying. The deal was that she would move over for 3 months (that’s how long a tourist visa is), she would live with them, they would help her find a job, and she would watch the kids for a few hours, twice a week. These people were her friends. She was excited about the opportunity of spending more time in Europe. If things went well, she would go home and then come back for another three months on a new visa.

In principle, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. In reality, they never helped her find another job, and in fact reminded her that she couldn’t really get one with only a tourist visa. The few hours twice a week turned into mom and dad going away for a week at a time, leaving her with the kids, and only €50 for expenses. Even when they were both home, they were happy to sleep in while their “nanny” drove the kids to school. Their “what’s mine is yours” attitude changed very quickly when she drank a €10 bottle of wine that turned out to be the last one in the house. They provided her with a room, and not much else. Even food was limited to what they provided for the kids, i.e., chicken fingers and spaghetti. When they went out for drinks with her, they split the tab. Still, they were shocked when she didn’t want to return after her visa was up. In fact, they had the gall to say that they felt as if she was taking advantage of them.

There are no shackles, no whips, and no dark damp basements, but it sounds an awful lot like slavery. So who are the modern slave owners? People who feel entitled to have help because of their status in life. People who could afford to pay for help, if it didn’t cut into their budget for botox and holidays. People who will do whatever they can get away with. People who will take advantage of the naive and trusting. Well-respected members of society.

Although it helps if you treat your slave well, having someone do work for you for which they are not paid still amounts to slavery. It’s sickening to see what people will do to preserve their lifestyle–and to see how they can rationalize it. We do something similar every day when we buy items made by underpaid or unpaid workers in foreign countries. Why Italian luxury brands like Prada and Dolce & Gabbana can’t pay the people who make their clothes a decent wage is beyond me, they certainly have the profit margin. It’s a disgusting reality, that we are complicit in creating. Is it really necessary to exploit others to improve our quality of life? It’s so easy to turn a blind eye, especially when we really want a new dress. I found a great website (http://www.rankabrand.org/) with information about lots of brands and their policies towards employees and also the environment if you’re into that sort of thing. More transparency about where our clothes and other goods are coming from would be great. Boycotting companies that refuse to outline their employee’s work conditions will help too. I think we can do more than just not own slaves. We can make a point of not benefiting from slavery.