Good Intentions & Bad Outcomes

Joseph meant well when he convinced his family to move to Egypt.

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Additional fees, interest and penalties balloon the loan beyond its original size. Unable to repay the loan, the borrower becomes enslaved to his or her creditor, who might also sell the children of the debtor against the debt. One could argue the biblical rationalization that bonded individuals enslaved themselves as a solution to an emergent crisis. But no one faced with starvation or a critically ill family member could envision that the act of taking a loan would lead to enslavement, violence and poverty for generations.

Slave-Produced Goods

Debt bondage remains largely invisible to the average consumer, but we all benefit from it. Slave-produced goods are ubiquitous in American markets. In September, the United States Department of Labor released a list of 122 goods produced in 58 countries and imported to the United States that are the work of child or forced labor. These include some imports of everyday products like cotton, coffee, sugarcane and cocoa.

As consumers of these goods, we are complicit in modern slavery; however, we can also use our consumption choices to end it. For example, we can buy fair trade goods, which reward employers who pay an honest, living wage. AJWS has partnered with Equal Exchange to sell kosher-certified fair trade coffee and chocolate, two industries that have long been plagued with slave labor. There are also other forms of certification that promote a slavery-free supply chain, such as the new Free 2 Work campaign, which rates corporations on their use of slave labor.

Corporate responsibility and government action are also critical to ending modern slavery. We can reward companies that eradicate slave labor from their products, for example, by lobbying our 401k funds to invest only in companies that have a transparent supply chain. We must also urge government officials to require trade partners to take anti-slavery actions, and lobby for the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which includes provisions for the detection, liberation and treatment of both domestic and international slaves.

With all of the prosperity of today's world, no one should be forced to make the choice that lay before the Egyptians of Joseph’s day: freedom or starvation--especially when the consequences can potentially last for generations. But we can interrupt this cycle through the choices we make as consumers and the steps we take as activists. If we simply open our eyes to the injustice in our midst, we can see the path towards ending slavery in our lifetime.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is director of education and outreach for Rabbis for Human Rights--North America. She was ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she also received her MA and BA in Midrash. She is a contributor to The Jew and the Carrot and serves on the boards of Hazon and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.