The Slaves We Eat

Overview

            Nearly three centuries ago a Philadelphia abolitionist condemned those who ate “the flesh and blood of slaves instead of Christ.” It was a potent contention linking slaves’ distant toil and the substance of what we consume.  This book takes that metaphor as a starting point to examine three and a half centuries of slavery through the supply chains of sugar, cotton, and shrimp. It argues that slavery survived its legal termination and that slave-made goods and services are present in much of what we consume.
            The Slaves We Eat is a human history of managers and forced laborers focusing on the developments linking consumers’ pedestrian acts of buying a bag of sugar, a cotton blouse, or a tray of shrimp to the violence that make those commodities affordable for so many. It links regimes of slave labor over time using supply chain management, historicizing a central focus of business studies today and pinpointing how slavery was baked into early modern supply chains and why those linkages persisted through eras of emancipation. The central historical claim is that the 25 million people enslaved today are legatees of a process responsible for 12 million captives embarked in the transatlantic slave trade and millions more forced toil in slave labor camps in the Americas and beyond.
            It seeks to reshape the field of historical studies and influence the theory and practice of supply chain management while arguing for federal antislavery legislation modeled on Britain's 2015 Modern Slavery Act and California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 (TSCA). Historians of slavery and abolition have had a difficult time spanning the processes of slavery before and after legal termination. The Slaves We Eat argues that business strategy forcing competition among producers of the commodities examined promotes forced labor. International reach and nimble flexibility tend to make protective labor legislation into a disadvantage to producers and processors competing for business. And slavery has historically been supported as a business interest. Because of the determined resistance of bondspersons themselves, chattel slavery ended in the British West Indies and India in the 1830s, in the United States in 1865, and in Brazil in 1888. Yet forms of slavery persisted in those areas because of competitive pressures and the abundance of levers on disadvantaged or newly freed workers. Labor coercion continues to thrive in countries that export farmed shrimp, including India, Ecuador, and Indonesia, where chattel slavery was abolished in the mid-nineteenth century. Forced labor is stitched into global supply chains of cotton from fields in Uzbekistan to the factories of Dhaka and Phnom Penh. Examining business strategy over time, this book argues that legal restrictions on slavery hid slavery by other names and that producers and processors are exceedingly creative at developing coercive modes of production. Historicizing supply chain management has implications for how it is taught in business schools. It has major policy implications including an argument for a federal transparency in supply chains act modeled on California's TSCA requiring businesses doing $100 million in sales each year to disclose efforts to find and combat slavery in their supply chains. This history suggests that such legislation is the best way begin identifying the slaves we consume.
 

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  1. Shrimp Peelers