In 2016, it was estimated that 40.3 million people are living in modern slavery. Girls and women make up 71 percent of victims. And as of 2018, the Global Slavery Index (GSI) estimates there are 136,000 potential victims of modern slavery in the UK alone. If you’re already familiar with these facts, you’re one of the few. There are more victims of slavery now than ever before, so, why isn’t modern slavery a more prominent issue in our newsfeeds?
The internet is filled with information. We no longer pass pamphlets in secret, instead, facts and figures are sent from screen to screen. Conversations are held in the comments of our posts for all to see. Friends share colourful graphics, and statistics are neatly packaged and quietly slipped into grids. Social media is a one-stop-shop for news, petitions, educational resources, and how to make a difference. Yet, even as hashtags trend, their life cycle is short and the buzz eventually fades, leaving complicit silence until the next viral outcry. Even amongst a seemingly global awakening to injustice, we continue to overlook modern slavery. Put simply we’re not willing to be uncomfortable. Asking where our food or clothes come from would highlight our privilege and compromise our access to cheap goods. In the frankest terms, we haven’t figured out how to be outraged without giving up the convenience that comes from exploiting others.
We loathe paying out of pocket for local, hand-crafted goods with transparent supply chains. Instead, we choose mass-produced fast-fashion and pay less than half the price for products made by overseas workers who are paid as little as 7 pence per hour. At the start of July, it was revealed this exploitation was closer to home than we think. The Sunday Times revealed the Boohoo Group has been underpaying garment factory workers in Leicester, as well as forcing them to work in unsafe conditions at the height of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown.
Boohoo, worth 4.6 billion pounds, pays factory workers £2 to £3 per hour, while senior executives were expecting to see salary increases of up to 30 percent. The group’s CEO John Lyttle is set to receive a share increase of £50 million if the company continues to perform well this year. Even in the middle of the lockdown, Boohoo’s factories continued to operate at full capacity and their profits increased across the board. The company added to its portfolio in June, spending £5.25 million to acquire Oasis and Warehouse. They are predicted for the overall growth of 25 percent for 2020, and yet, they refuse to improve working conditions or provide a living wage for workers in their supply chain. Calls to boycott Boohoo, who own Nasty Gal, Pretty Little Thing, Miss Pap, and Karen Millen, fell short with the hashtag barely trending past the week the story broke. There was so little discussion around the exploitation of Boohoo’s workers it barely registered on most people’s social media radar, if it made any impact at all. This apathy is a symptom of our twenty-four-hour news cycle and our ever-scrolling thumbs, we no longer have the attention span for issues outside our ideological echo chambers which have already been rocked this year.
After the explosive response to the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, prominent speakers in the Black community voiced worries that the support and subsequent allyship was performative at best. Little has been done to quell these fears, which are realised in the lack of support for Boohoo’s exploited workers – many of whom are from minority ethnic groups. While we congratulate ourselves for sharing resources and soothe our consciences by donating to anti-racist charities, workers who need our support continue to be silenced and mistreated. Instead, we break our outrage into bite-sized chunks, curated to match the aesthetic of our digital presence.
Most people are familiar with a handful of terms for modern slavery: sex trafficking, prison labour, debt bondage, domestic servitude, and forced marriages. However, looking at the components of modern slavery still doesn’t generate enough steam for people to speak out and ask where slavery exists in our globalised world. According to the GSI even with countries involved in the Global Partnership to End Modern Slavery working to emancipate all victims of modern slavery by 2030, it would take freeing 10,000 people every day to meet this goal. We’ve all seen the pretty graphics breaking down the prison industrial complex, descent-based slavery, and human trafficking. And while many may claim ally fatigue, we must listen, work to digest this information and act. Calling for transparency in our supply chains, fair wages and safe conditions for workers is a start. It is no longer excusable to be ignorant of modern slavery. We must demand people to be put before profit.