Child Labor, Slavery and Your Shopping Habits

The issue: On September 10, 2009, the US Department of Labor sent its “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” to Vice-President Biden. The report is a requirement of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Acts of 2005 and 2008. The foreword to the report states, “As a nation and as members of the global community, we reject the proposition that it is acceptable to pursue economic gain through the forced labor of other human beings or the exploitation of children in the workplace.”

The results of the US Department of Labor Study: The report identifies “122 goods produced with forced labor, child labor, or both, in 58 countries.” The report lists the most common goods produced using these labor practices as:

1. Agricultural Products

• Cotton
• Sugarcane
• Tobacco
• Coffee
• Rice
• Cocoa

2. Manufactured Products

• Bricks
• Garments
• Carpets
• Footwear

3. Mined or Quarried Products

• Gold
• Coal

The consequences of these labor practices: The report provides an estimate of the human costs of these labor practices: an estimated “218 million children work worldwide, among whom 126 million are in hazardous forms of work.” There are an estimated “12.3 million persons – children and adults – trapped in forced labor around the world.”

Emerging patterns:
The report states that “69 percent of child labor worldwide is in agriculture”, often in “rural, agricultural economies”. However, it is also reported that there is child labor “in more developed economies, in the manufacture of goods such as Christmas decorations, fashion accessories, and soccer balls for the global marketplace.”

Organizations involved in combating these labor practices: There are many organizations working to oppose forced labor and child labor globally. Some of these organizations and information that they publish are described here:

1. The following material comes from this organization and is a direct quote:

How does slavery occur in the supply chain? There is evidence of slavery in different stages of the supply chain from the production of raw materials, for example cocoa and cotton farming, to manufacturing goods such as hand-knotted rugs and even at the final stage, when the product reaches the market.

How does the supply chain work? Typically the final product you purchase has passed through a long chain of producers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers who have all participated in its production, delivery and sale. It can therefore be very difficult to track a component of an end product back to a particular producer, for example cotton in a T-shirt back to a particular cotton farm.

For this reason it is not always possible to certify that a product has or has not been produced using slavery. However the way in which companies operate can affect the likelihood of slavery being a part of the final product. If a brand gives its supplier a large order with a short turnaround time beyond the suppliers’ capacity, this could increase the risk of slavery as the supplier may subcontract work to factories or workers that are not regulated by the same standards as the supplier.

Company buyers may negotiate such low prices that suppliers are forced to push down the price it pays for the materials it needs, which can have a knock-on effect on those involved in the production of raw materials, increasing the likelihood of the use of forced labor.

What can you do? Ask questions when you shop. Does your local retailer stock fair trade products? Use your consumer power to show you care — buy fair trade marked products and Rugmark carpets, a certification scheme for rugs and carpets made without illegal child labor. In supermarkets, look out for the Fairtrade Mark. This is the best available guarantee that a product has not been produced using slave labor because goods can only be Fairtrade certified if they have complied with Fairtrade standards, which incorporate international human rights standards. For retail chains, write a letter to the company headquarters asking what measures the company is taking to identify, prevent and end the use of forced labor and slavery from their supply chain. Ask if the company is a member of the ETI [i.e. the Ethical Trading Initiative] and ask the company to explain how it is involved.

Why not boycott? In certain situations boycotting specific goods or countries can actually make the situation worse and undermine the economy of an already poor country. A boycott could hurt those in slavery-like conditions as well as those employers who are not exploiting their workers, and worsen the poverty that is one of the root causes of the problem. Support fair and ethical trade initiatives instead and use consumer power to encourage retailers and companies to move to the Fairtrade scheme.

2. Ethical Trading Initiative – This organization produces the factsheet “Ethical Trade: What It Means For Consumers”, available on their web site.

3. International Labor Rights Forum – this organization provides information on many of the most common goods produced through child and forced labor. For example, the organization reports on cocoa as follows in this direct quote:

Cocoa Campaign – People around the world share a love of chocolate, one of the most delicious and pleasurable foods on earth. Thousands of children in West Africa are forced to labor in the production of cocoa, chocolate’s primary ingredient.

The West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is the leading supplier of cocoa, accounting for more than 40% of global production. Low cocoa prices and thus the need for lower labor costs drive farmers to employ children as a means to survive.

The US Department of State estimates that more than 109,000 children in Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa industry work under “the worst forms of child labor,” and that some 10,000 are victims of human trafficking or enslavement.

These child workers labor for long, punishing hours, using dangerous tools and facing frequent exposure to dangerous pesticides as they travel great distances in the grueling heat.

Those who labor as slaves must also suffer frequent beatings and other cruel treatment. Cote d’Ivoire’s child laborers are robbed not only of their freedom but of the right to a basic education.

In a country where more than half the population is illiterate, basic education of “cocoa children” takes on an even more critical significance for Cote d’Ivoire’s future. Increased access to education must be a key component in any effective strategy to reduce poverty and exploitative child labor.

In addition, this organization reports on specific companies and their practices, for example in this direct quote:

Stop Firestone – The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company has operated the world’s largest rubber plantation in the world in Harbel, Liberia for over 80 years. Firestone signed a concession agreement with the government of Liberia to lease over one million acres of land in 1926 for 6 cents per acre for a period of 99 years.

In 2005, Firestone signed a new 37-year agreement with a transitional government in Liberia to lease the land for 50 cents per acre.

Firestone workers must tap trees in order to extract the latex necessary for making rubber tires. The rubber tappers must meet a daily production quota or their already low wages will be halved.

By Firestone Natural Rubber Company CEO Dan Adomitis’ own admission on CNN, it would take over 21 hours to meet the quota. As a result, tappers are forced to bring their children and wives to work. Children are forced to carry two 70 pound buckets of rubber on their shoulders for miles. In addition, tappers and their children must apply toxic pesticides without protection.

The problem of diamonds: A report from the on-line publication “National Jeweler” entitled “Three Countries Accused Of Using Child Labor In Diamond Mines” states:

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC), Liberia and Sierra Leone use child labor in their diamond activities, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sierra Leone is also accused of using forced labor in its diamond industry.

The three are just a few of the countries that are accused of using children to produce a long list of products that also includes gold, silver and gems.

These three countries are all diamond-producing countries and do not have any meaningful manufacturing or diamond-cutting operations. It is therefore understood that the child and forced labor is taking place in diamond mining in these countries.

The report also states that children are working in India’s gem industry, and that child labor is heavily used in gold mining, too. Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Colombia, DROC, Ecuador, Ghana, Guinea, Indonesia, Mali, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Niger, North Korea, Peru, Philippines, Senegal and Tanzania are listed in this connection.

In Burkina Faso, North Korea and Peru, gold mining also includes forced labor.

Burma is accused of employing child and forced labor in its jade industry, while in Bolivia children are used in silver mining.

THE BIG QUESTION: What can we do?

Some options to consider and discuss:

• Learn the facts!
• Ask questions
• Advocate for those with no voice
• Buy and promote fair-trade products, including “Rugmark” carpets
• To boycott or not to boycott?
• Buying locally versus buying globally
• Buying new versus used (“second-hand”) goods
• Buying diamonds that are certified by the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme

Thanks for visiting!