Products of Labor Abuse
“Another of my wishes is to depend as little as possible on the labor of slaves”
~ James Madison (American 4th US President (1809-17) and one of the founding fathers. 1751-1836
You check your email over morning coffee, stirring in just a bit of sugar. As you put on a fresh cotton shirt, you’re planning a special dinner for someone close to you. You need to prepare that shrimp dish with saffron rice before they arrive. You hope they’ll like your gifts of chocolates and gold jewelry. The balloon decorations are in place. You make a cell phone call before you get ready to drive to the market.
You’ve now been slapped in the face with slavery over a dozen times before you even leave your driveway! Coffee, sugar, rice, and cotton are commodities that, depending on their place of origin, may likely have been produced with slave labor or child labor. Luxury items like chocolate, saffron, and gold are frequently tainted by slavery. Much seafood, especially shrimp, is harvested by children under abusive conditions beyond belief. Cell phones and computers depend on a rare metal called tantalum extracted from the ore coltan, which is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo using slave labor. Gold is dug in deep pits by children scratching the earth with crude tools. Even your festive balloons may have been produced by child slaves laboring intensively in chemically hazardous environments for hardly enough to live. As you close that car door, would you ever suspect that the rubber in its tires was tapped by slave laborers in Liberia, or that the steel may derive from pig iron mined by slaves deep in the Amazon jungle where they are watched over by taskmasters with guns?
It is incredible. What can a person possibly do to insulate themselves? How can we at least not contribute to this part of the global economy? A partial answer lies in becoming informed about these products and others like them. You can exert some influence on the market by using the power of the purse and striving to shop ethically. As an informed consumer you will be able to exert your influence in a number of ways. By asking merchants for ethically sourced items you will help the growth of this market. By contacting companies you believe to be complicit in exploitation and voicing your concerns you cause them to reconsider their sources and practices. By enlisting friends and family in this effort, you can leverage your consumer power enormously. This page from the International Labor Rights Forum has very good information on a few of these product categories along with the addresses and contact information for major purveyors: Stop Child & Forced Labor.
For an astonishing world view of this problem, see the INTERACTIVE MAP: Products of Slavery.
The list of products is long and surprising.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Acts of 2005 and 2008 required the Department of Labor to compile and publish a list of products produced by child labor or forced labor, and the countries where these abuses were prevalent. After much foot-dragging, and in response to public clamor from the abolitionist community, the list was finally unveiled in 2009 by the new administration. It is available in the Files section of our Meetup site here:
122 goods in 58 countries were produced with a significant incidence of forced labor, child labor, or both. Child labor abuse seems the most prevalent worldwide.
The most common goods having a significant incidence of forced and/or child labor in agriculture: cocoa, coffee, cotton, rice, sugarcane, and tobacco. In manufacturing: bricks, garments, carpets, and footwear. In mined/quarried goods: gold, diamonds and coal.
Following are just a few examples of unusual or surprising cases that illustrate the variety and scope of this problem:
- In 2007, a case of crucifixes purchased by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York were traced back to a factory in China where girls as young as 15 were forced to work up to 19-hour days, seven days a week to manufacture the religious items. Today, Christian items from bible covers to t-shirts are being made in factories which abuse and traffic workers.
- Slavery in the strawberry harvesting industry happens around the world. In one case in the U.S. last year, thirty Mexican workers were enslaved harvesting strawberries in Louisiana.
- In Malawi, 78,000 children, some as young as five, work 12-hour days to produce cigarettes.
- Those Christmas decorations from Walmart? Twelve year olds working 100 hour weeks in China for less than half of even their paltry minimum wage!
- That shimmer in your eye shadow? It is a mineral called mica. Much of the world’s mica comes from India, where children as young as six labor long and hard for a single meal of rice. Their labor is what fuels the Western cosmetic industry.
- A 7-year-old boy works all day, every day, in a balloon factory in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. He and 19 other children work 12-hour days, 7 days a week, for about $2.14 per week.
On the following pages we will detail some of the more common products that are associated with slave labor and child labor, and look at ways we can exercise the power of the purse to help curb these abuses.
To join us in action and discussion, please visit