Slave Labor and Supply Chains

The UN describes modern slavery as the condition of people whose work “is performed involuntarily and under the menace of penalty.”  Modern slaves can be forced to work through threats of violence, through withholding of identification, through threats to family members, and also through subtler means like financial pressure or limiting movements. All told according to a recent report by the Walk Free Initiative, in 2018 there were 40.3 million people living in these conditions, mainly women. When Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981, as the last stronghold it made slavery illegal throughout the world.  One problem is how difficult it is to track down the offenses. It is part of countries with shady human rights certainly, but it is everywhere, including the US. Of these 40 plus million there are at least 16 who are part of the supply chain, meaning the people who work on the things we buy. Even if slave conditions are outlawed within manufacturing, it is difficult to enforce, to make sure products are entirely made by slave free labor. The fashion and the tech industries are two of the worst culprits. With fashion for example, we want cheap clothes, and cheap clothes can only come with cheap labor.  Some businesses are onboard, yet because products can have many parts which come from many different countries it is often difficult to know if slave working conditions were involved. Another aspect of the tragedy is that so many of those who are forced to work and/or live under these conditions are not aware they are being exploited. There are no easy answers, but one hope lies in education: Educating people about their rights, and promoting human rights education among vulnerable populations such as those of migrant workers or those likely to be in underage marriages.

If and when we can, let’s contribute to that education.

Prisons in Norway

As a follow up to a recent post about abolishing prisons, this BBC News story on prisons in Norway makes an important point. Prisons there are beyond what many criminal justice reformers dare to hope for here. The setting is rustic, there are no barbed wires around and the guards who are called Prison Officer Assistants function like teachers, counselors, mentors. The whole idea behind the Norway prison system is that those who are in prison will one day be neighbors and so rehabilitation is opted over retribution, so that when they come out prisoners are better people than when they went in. Since in Norway the maximum sentence is 21 years all prisoners are eventually released. Each inmate has his own cell with TV, a bath and a view of the woods outside. They study trades, pursue degrees, take yoga classes, go into retreats when they need to. And what is striking especially when compared with US prisons is that there is no violence. Once in a while an inmate may act violently but the facility has none of the incidents of violence that are routinely expected in contemporary US prisons.  Each guard who has had at least 3 years of training, is assigned about 3 inmates, so the ratio is far different than  in the US and surely also makes a difference. After 2 years of this approach the recidivism rate in Norway has gone down to 20%.  Prior to that, it had been 60 to 70%. In the UK it’s about 50% and in the US it is 68% within 3 years and 76% within 5 years.

Of course this approach is expensive and that argument may be used by critics as a drawback. It costs the equivalent of about 98,000 British pounds per person. In the US the average is usually $30,000 but can be double that in some states. Economics tell us however, that there are social costs, and opportunity costs, and I suspect when all these are added together (not even factoring in the social good and humanity of the issue) the Norway type of prison may in the long run turn out to be cheaper.

Population Growth and Family Planning

When Paul Ehrlich published his The Population Bomb in 1968 it made a huge difference in our awareness of the harm over population could do. We’ve since forgotten how crucial this issue is, and now climate change is a powerful reminder along with an annual report from the UN Population Division. More people means the need for food production, one of the very thing   affected by climate change.  And the areas where population growth is slated to be the highest, will be those areas more affected. Niger, Pakistan and Nigeria are on the list. Besides more food more population means more schools, more health care, something difficult for poor countries. So people migrate. And we’ve seen what that creates, not only on the US border but on other continents as well.  Family planning used to be on the agenda of many, but political agendas as well as religious groups have attacked it. It is now 1% (one) of overseas development aid although according to the founders of OASIS (Organizing to Advance Solutions in the Sahel) as well as several UN agencies family planning is the most cost effective form of foreign aid. They say family planning is an investment and they suggest increasing it to 2%. The difference it would make in terms of population growth would be enormous and enough they believe to keep us from a catastrophe. In 1968, the population was 3.8 billion and grew at about 2% this meant that every year there was 60 million more birth than death. Today our population is 7.7 billion although population growth is only 1% there are 80 million more births than death every year—that is the equivalent of adding a country such as Germany every year. We shall be 9.7 billion by 2050 and 15.6 billion by 2099.

Population control is even more of a time bomb now than it was in Ehrlich’s time. Voluntary family planning can and will make a huge difference, and we need to remind our decision makers that it needs to be on the foreign aid agenda.

Ankle Bracelets Monitoring

Something about profiting from the vulnerable is unconscionable which is why I wanted to bring attention to one of the ways our society practices it. For a host of reasons people caught in the criminal justice system are being asked to wear ankle bracelets. Often these keep them from being in jail while awaiting trial. Of course sometimes people are innocent but need a trial to prove it. There is a catch.  In St Louis, the city ProPublica investigated, EMASS (Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services) the company that operates these ankle bracelets is a private company which charges $10 a day and the bill must be paid in full before the ankle bracelet is removed. As can be imagined this can be tough for many. And while being in jail is technically the alternative, aside from the hardship of life in prison, for some that would mean a loss of a job. As we know young Black men are disproportionately caught in this system and that bill or debt can make it even harder for them to bring some kind of normalcy to their lives.

Like private prisons, these companies work to sustain and enlarge their bottom line.  Profit ought not to be part of the justice system. And while that may not be the current trend, it remains what is necessary.

Please note, we will be on hiatus for the month of August. See you back in September.