Sometime back, my friend Rev. Terry Heck asked me to talk to a district group about human trafficking. I replied that this wasn’t really in my wheelhouse, and maybe she should look for someone better informed. Terry can be persuasive, however, and I ended up researching and speaking on this issue. What I learned was….What’s the best word here? Shocking? Heartbreaking? Infuriating? With an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide today, the modern slave industry far exceeds numerically the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry.
One of the more alarming things I learned in my work on this issue is that I was unwittingly contributing to it. Our practices as consumers contribute in direct ways to the modern slave trade. Clothing, chocolate, and, coffee are all tied up with human trafficking and forced labor. One small thing we can do is to buy coffee and chocolate that are fair-trade certified. Most brands, in fact, are not. As I was trying to find out which brands were and which weren’t, I came across an article called “Bitter Beans: Is Your Coffee Produced By Child Slaves?” Two particular items in this article stood out for me:
Some coffee industry executives say the labor issue isn’t their concern. “This industry isn’t responsible for what happens in a foreign country,” said Gary Goldstein of the National Coffee Association, which represents the companies that make Folgers, Maxwell House, Nescafe, and other brands.
Many of the people growing coffee work exceedingly long hours for less than $600 per year, while others are enslaved and paid nothing. Meanwhile, Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods, the parent company of Maxwell House Coffee, is paid more than $26 million a year — which is a lot, but not as much as Howard D.Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, who receives more than $30 million a year. It’s not easy for most consumers to stomach the contrast between the gruesome reality of slave labor and salaries that enable CEOs to live like emperors.
Consider now Paul’s words in 2 Cor 8:9: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Paul of course doesn’t mean that we become rich like the coffee-company CEO’s. Rather, we become rich by gaining new life and salvation. This means that we live differently, and, like Christ, give of ourselves for the wellbeing of others.
Quite recently I learned of a student at United Theological Seminary who was a victim of forced labor. Next week I’ll share his story on this site. I hope you’ll take some time to learn about this grave matter of human trafficking.