By Melissa Jane Kronfeld & Megan Legband
Documentary filmmaker Sanjay Rawal is a pioneer in the anti-slavery space, harnessing the power of the silver screen to expose humanity’s worst abuses and highlight the courageous heroes fighting against them. Born in Nigeria and educated at the University of California, Berkeley – where he studied molecular biology – Sanjay moved to New York in 1994 to pursue a personal journey of self-discovery with a Queens-based spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy.
After 15 years working in the human rights space – directing and managing a series of foundations, non-governmental organizations, as well as corporate and individual philanthropic endeavors – Sanjay turned to film in 2009 to further his cause and expresses his passion for equality. His most recent documentary Food Chains – starring Barry Estabrook, Eric Schlosser, Eva Longoria, and Forest Whitaker – is an award-winning documentary focused on the exploitation of farmworkers in the United States, bringing to light the appalling conditions farmworkers are compelled to endure while tending to the soil of the land of the free.
Sanjay – a lifelong surfer, runner, and endurance sports fanatic – is now working on a feature-length documentary about ultra-distance running in the context of indigenous rights.
Check out what happened when we caught up with Sanjay to talk about the fight to #EndSlaveryNow!
What is one fact that every person should know about slavery?
We don’t really teach the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States. Most people in the U.S. assume that because of the 13th Amendment, slavery has been completely eradicated. After Reconstruction, however, slavery moved from chattel bondage [bondage from birth] to more insidious, less visible realms. Bonded labor, prison labor, forced labor on farms – these all began to supplant chattel slavery in our domestic agricultural system.
Of course, there’s slavery in domestic sweatshops, sex work and other lines, not to mention internationally. I think the most important thing to note, however, is that people getting a low or substandard wage aren’t ‘in slavery.’ There are people living in the U.S. who actually face physical harm or death if they were to voluntarily try to leave their work situation.
How did you first learn about modern slavery & what did you decide to do about it?
I really had no experience in domestic modern day slavery until I started working on my last documentary, Food Chains, which chronicles the battle of a small group of tomato pickers from Florida, calling themselves the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), against the supermarket and fast food industries, which create the conditions for slavery in agriculture.
Of course, these multi-billion dollar companies aren’t directly enslaving people but their effective price fixing down the chain creates really substandard conditions for workers on farms. When those workers are forced to live hand-to-mouth because of low wages, the possibility for modern-day slavery begins to exist. When one is dirt poor, one can’t afford to a lose a job. That worker will tolerate more and more and complain less and less in order to keep his or her employment.
Again, the vast majority of substandard wage jobs are not slavery, but at the far end of this spectrum modern-day slavery can flourish. A desperate worker might find himself or herself in a job that’s not like the others they’ve had – that has physical abuse, threats, withheld wages and sometimes death threats. The CIW pioneered domestic work against modern day slavery and are largely responsible for the U.S. government understanding and reacting to the presence of forced labor on American soil. I’ve learned what I have from them – from people who have risked their lives to physically and legally free thousands of workers from bonded labor in agriculture.
What is the most critical obstacle preventing us from having a slave free world?
Slavery is illegal in the U.S. and in most countries. But laws aren’t effectively enforced. These days, too, bonded labor conditions exist in supply chains that crisscross the world and effectively end in our homes. We unknowingly purchase goods made by slaves on a regular basis. But in many cases, someone somewhere knows which goods were manufactured by enslaved people.
The U.S. government is just waking up to its power to ban these goods from importation into the United States. This denial of access to market is a great step. But it will only have major ramifications if law enforcement in the country of manufacture can eradicate bad players for good.
What is the most important lesson you have learned while fighting for freedom?
I can’t say I’m a freedom fighter. I can say though that I’ve had to opportunity to see some of the best in action. Those I’m speaking of are tireless in their pursuit for justice. They are also solutions-based – they want to end the economic incentives for modern day slavery.
One group of advocates that fit this bill are the CIW. They’ve eradicated modern day slavery from the tomato fields of Florida which, as little as 10 years ago, were deemed ‘ground zero’ for modern day slavery in America. They believe that a slave-free world is a possibility. But they also understand that maintaining a slave-free area or industry requires constant vigilance.
Why do you believe the Millennial generation will be the one that can end slavery?
Slavery used to exist in small pockets. The interconnectedness of global supply chains has expanded the need for slavery but it has also brought it out into the open and made it a part of the lives of billions of consumers. Millennials are doing more than any previous generation to raise awareness not just of the problem but of the existence of solutions.
What does a slave free world look like to you?
A slave-free world isn’t static. Ensure that the world remains slave-free will require constant monitoring. It will require that we listen to those at risk for enslavement. It will require that workers at the bottom of supply chains have a voice at discussions at the top.
It will require that governments remain supportive of the work of advocates and devote more and more resources to judicial and legislative solutions. And it will require people, governments and corporations around the world to work together to continue searching for places where slavery can mushroom and work assiduously on preventing that.
What is one thing every reader can start doing right now to help end slavery?
Support groups that are working to fight slavery. There are many. One I would suggest is the CIW who are the main subjects of my film Food Chains. Support national legislation to expose slavery in our supply chains. Advocate for larger federal, state and local budgets for law enforcement, and learn more about the products you purchase on a regular basis at Slavery Footprint.
Profiles In Abolition is an in-depth look at the influencers, innovators & thought leaders in the modern anti-slavery movement. An accompaniment to Millennial Magazine’s ongoing 10-part series exposing modern slavery – a project of the Nexus Global Youth Summit (read Parts One and Two) – Profiles In Abolition will examine a diverse & inspiring array of advocates whose critical voice must be heard.
Want to learn more from the world’s leading luminaries in the fight to #EndSlaveryNow? Sign up for the Nexus Anti-Slavery Speaker Series, a weekly conference call with the men and women on the front lines of the modern abolition movement! This call is open to the public and everyone is welcome to listen in! Click here to register for free. Then learn more about modern slavery by following Nexus on Twitter, Instagram & Millennial Magazine!