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Stu Lindberg: Prop 2 won’t help the 40 million enslaved people in the world

This commentary is by Stu Lindberg, a resident of Cavendish.

On July 2, 1777, Vermont became the first colony to abolish slavery in its constitution as well as provide full voting rights to African American males. Vermonters owned a total of 25 slaves that year. 

The U.S. Congress ratified the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the entire nation, in December 1865. 

In November 2022 — 245 years after abolishing slavery — Vermont overwhelmingly passed Proposition 2. This amendment adds language to the state constitution prohibiting slavery and indentured servitude in any form. By doing so, Vermonters recommitted themselves legally and morally against enslaving fellow human beings. 

As good as it makes us feel about ourselves, one has to wonder if Prop 2 is little more than lip service.

The United States had an estimated total of 4 million slaves in 1860. In comparison, the global slavery index shows that there are 57,000 enslaved people in the United States today. Kevin Bales, professor of contemporary slavery and co-author of the Global Slavery Index, states that the practice of slavery has never stopped in the U.S. or abroad regardless of politico-legal prohibitions. 

What is the definition of slavery? “It is about one person completely controlling another person — and using violence to maintain control — with the ultimate aim of exploitation,” Bales explains. 

At present, there are around 40 million enslaved people in the world, including victims of forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, human trafficking, child labor, forced marriage, many sex workers, and descent-based slavery. 

The ugly truth is that many of the comforts we enjoy as Vermonters and Americans come at the expense of our fellow brothers and sisters who toil and suffer in various forms of endless exploitative relationships. The cellphones to which we are addicted and the so-called “clean” energy alternatives, like solar energy panels and electric vehicle batteries, require rare earth minerals. These are sourced in African mines and processed in Chinese factories that run on forced labor, especially child labor. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, has 873,100 slaves. 40,000 of these slaves are children who are forced to work in the country’s cobalt mines. The cobalt, which they are forced to dig up with their bare hands, is essential for making electric vehicle batteries. The Democratic Republic of Congo provides 60 percent of the world’s cobalt supply. 

Despite commitments from corporate manufacturers, the huge increase in demand (spurred by government electric vehicle mandates and subsidies) means that these conditions will continue unabated.

The only way that modern-day forced child labor will end is by loud and concerted efforts to make  consumers aware of these gruesome realities and the consequences of their buying decisions. Voting to add language that outlaws a practice that has been outlawed for nearly three centuries asks nothing of us. 

How many of those who championed Prop 2 are willing to accept the ecological and human rights travesties that lay in the wake of electric vehicle manufacturing? How many are willing to give up their smartphones to prohibit slavery and indentured servitude in any form?

There are many groups that are fiercely dedicated to the ending modern slavery. A simple internet search will allow you to find an organization whose work speaks to your heart. My family supports Exodus Cry.  

Vermonters have an opportunity to put into action the sentiment that we expressed on Nov. 8. We have talked the talk. I hope you will join me in walking the walk. 

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