Contrary to what we see on television, the Internet, and in newspapers, Labor Day wasn’t created to increase the consumption of beer and barbeque, or to generate more sales at department stores. It’s not called Redneck Hangout Day (which I, for one, would be glad to celebrate) or Consumption Day. It’s Labor Day, a time for recognizing the contribution made by laborers to the success of the nation.
Most everyone I know works at something, but this day was specifically designated to separate the owners of capital and managers, who aren’t celebrated, from those earning hourly wages.
When it began in the 1800s, it was a time of Robber Barons, Industrialists, and Scientific Management Experts who did their best to squeeze greater efficiencies out of workers.
The unions were pushing back. Demanding a holiday in honor of workers was a logical way to raise awareness of how much the nation relies on this group.
I agree. I also think that managers and working owners of capital bring a lot to the table as well. But there’s a fundamental choice made before any of this celebration can occur. People choose to work.
More specifically, we get to choose to work. Our labor is of our own accord. While many people might not like their jobs, or aspects of their employment, they still have the right to show up or not.
For millions of people, this isn’t the case. Today there are between 27 million and 36 million slaves on the planet. In 1860, at the height of the slave population in the U.S., there were four million.
While human slavery has been outlawed in all nations, the practice continues, just under different names – debt servitude, indentured, etc. The effect, however, is the same.
People existing under these conditions are forced to perform labor without pay, are held against their will by force, are given subsistence levels of food and shelter, and cannot secure their freedom.
The pretense of a debt that is owed or other price to be paid merely gives the situation a thin veil of legitimacy. These people cannot secure their own release no matter how hard or how long they work.
They are, in essence, owned.
Some labor is sexual, such as when girls and women are trafficked. Other times is it hard labor in mines or fields. It can even be domestic labor, cooking and cleaning.
The biggest perpetrator by number is India, with an estimated 14 million slaves. These people are typically listed as indentured servants. Their forced labor is required to pay off a debt that in some cases is generations-old.
Benjamin Skinner, a modern slavery researcher, found a man in India who was enslaved for a debt of $0.62. It was incurred by his grandfather. For three generations his family remained in slavery because of that debt. But they earn no money, so there is no foreseeable repayment.
Mr. Skinner tells of another instance closer to home. In Haiti he was offered a 10-year-old girl for $100. He would own the girl. She would keep his house and his bedroom. Skinner talked them down to $50.
UNICEF estimates there are 300,000 child slaves in Haiti. Dan Harris of ABC’s Dateline was skeptical of this claim. He went back to Haiti with Mr. Skinner and within a day negotiated the purchase of three different girls. Of course he did not go through with the transactions, but merely proved that it was possible.
The recent success of ISIS, the terrorist group staking territorial claims in the Middle East and enslaving or murdering anyone who disagrees with them, is just the latest and most brutal example.
Even in the U.S., there are an estimated 14,000 to 17,000 slaves, most under the label of human trafficking for prostitution.
Americans, like most people around the world, recoil at the idea of slavery, and yet it persists right here, on our soil.
In Brazil, it is used by unscrupulous miners and loggers. In India, as well as Haiti, it is often the outcome of parents selling their children due to abject poverty.
Still, the outcome is the same. A human being with no freedom who is forced to do another’s bidding for the rest of his or her life for no benefit.
So while we celebrate the role of labor in our society today, we should also celebrate the freedom we have to choose our labor. And we should remember those among us, both here in the U.S. and abroad, who aren’t so fortunate.
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