Ambassador-at-large Luis CdeBaca and Conservative MP Joy Smith at a luncheon for MPs, Senators, diplomats and NGOs on modern-day slavery. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Consumer awareness can help fight modern-day slavery

  • May 23, 2012

OTTAWA - Consumers should ensure products they buy are not produced by modern-day slaves, said the American Ambassador-at-large who monitors and combats human trafficking.

“It takes a cultural shift,” Ambassador Luis CdeBaca told a gathering of MPs, senators, diplomats and NGOs on May 17.

CdeBaca, who works under U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said consumers must ask themselves: “Where did the shrimp come from that I’m eating? Where did the chocolate come from that I’m eating?”

CdeBaca admitted he had “no idea where the cotton on my shirt came from, but there’s a good chance that I’m wearing a shirt with cotton picked by child slaves in central Asia. If I don’t know, how are we to ask the consumers?”  

He said governments must insist on slavery-free contracting if they expect businesses to do so.

“There is a need for a cultural shift that does not come from government,” he said. The fight to end modern-day slavery will begin “only if we put victims and their journey to recovery at the centre of what we do. You have to hear and you have to act.”

“The term slavery is an emotional one,” he said. “Many want to look away.”

Though modern-day slavery often affects vulnerable immigrants, it also impacts indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, the mentally ill, deaf and disabled people and women, he said.

“When people are vulnerable there will always be cruel people who will enslave them.”

CdeBaca praised Canada’s efforts in fighting modern-day slavery, especially the role Conservative MP Joy Smith has played in championing a national strategy to combat human trafficking. Her second private member’s bill is now before the Senate, shepherded now by Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu.

Bill C-310 would extend Canada’s ability to prosecute human trafficking offenses to include activities by Canadian citizens or residents on foreign soil.

A former prosecutor, CdeBaca was lead counsel in a slavery case involving 300 Vietnamese and Chinese garment workers in American Samoa. He congratulated the work legislators in Canada are doing to combat human trafficking, but stressed “an action plan that does not have resources behind it is mere words on paper.”

A Catholic, CdeBaca said the Gospels contradict the notion that a woman caught in prostitution is irredeemable. “There is the notion in the Christian tradition that Jesus went out of His way not just to be seen with the woman in prostitution, but to honour her, to put in check those who would say she was not worthy of attention.”

Even though he runs the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, CdeBaca insisted slavery is the more accurate word.

“We use a lot of euphemisms in diplomacy,” he said. “When they give you your pinstriped suit and your diplomatic passport, they also give you a box of euphemisms.”

He cited the example of gender-based violence. “We don’t call it murder. We call it anything that lets us be more comfortable with it,” he said. “But it’s rape, it’s murder, and it’s slavery.”

He urged the rejection of “the false comfort of the euphemism, of the false comfort of trafficking of persons, so we can stare in the abyss, so we can name this,” on behalf of the citizens you represent.

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