“The question to ask is this: How can it possibly be cheaper to buy garlic form China rather than local garlic from California? What are the economic structures that have made that happen? Issues of land use, labor, subsidies – all this needs to be addressed. You have to get beyond the food to what’s behind it.” ~ Julie Guthman, Associate Professor, Community Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz
So many commodities are touched by forced labor and child labor that we cannot examine them here exhaustively. But we would like to provide you with some details on a few of the major products that most of us consume. Many products that are tainted by slavery are very labor intensive and/or delicate and not readily amenable to mechanization. Items like saffron, vanilla, strawberries, and cut flowers fall into this category. Other products are those which are being harvested illegally outside of regular channels or in remote areas where oversight is unlikely. This is true for valuable timbers such as teak and mahoghany and well as mined luxuries such as jade, gold and diamonds. Some seafood products, notably shrimp, are harvested by children under the most torturous conditions imaginable. Many agricultural products we find are produced under abusive conditions in a particular region simply due to extreme poverty and often with the acquiescence of the local government. This is probably the most common circumstance in the production of slave labor products. Crops include, in different parts of the world, rubber, cotton, rice, coffee, sugar and chocolate. Let’s look at some of these raw products.
Ninety percent of the shrimp in the United States is now imported. Much of it is harvested under conditions so abusive as to strain belief. Our page ‘Labor Trafficking‘ contains a detailed account of these abuses as revealed in “The Slave Next Door” (Bales and Soodhalter). This level of inhumanity driven by greed may be unmatched. Just as with the market for sexual services, this kind of slavery cannot be divorced from the demand. Consider looking more carefully into where your seafood is coming from. More and more restaurants and markets are responsive to these concerns as well as to ecological sustainability. By simply asking questions you become part of the solution by creating a demand not just for cheap goods, but for ethically sourced ones.
With its sweet taste and all the connotations of childhood affection, it is sad to note that this is one of the most abusively harvested crops in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) where almost half of the world’s chocolate originates as cocoa beans. The U.S. State Department estimates that over 15,000 child-slaves work on plantations in the Ivory Coast. They have been kidnapped or sold by their parents to work from age 8 on cutting cocoa pods from trees and processing them, often at the end of a whip. Children are tricked, sold or kidnapped to work the plantations under harsh conditions. The beans are bought by middlemen so that the big chocolate companies have a layer of insulation from the abject conditions that prevail. Nestle’s, Hershey’s and Mars are the largest buyers of this chocolate. In 2001, these companies, along with others, signed an international agreement, the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Commonly referred to as the Cocoa Protocol, it has yet to be implemented!
Support Fair Trade and learn which brands are exploitation free and why organic chocolate or products from Central America are far more likely to be ethical choices: Stop Chocolate Slavery
The United States consumes one-fifth of all the world’s coffee, making it the largest consumer in the world. Picking coffee beans is a labor intensive task, and as such is frequently subject to labor abuse, exploitation, and slavery. In a global economy farmers in Guatemala must compete with farmers in Vietnam for market share, and consequently the value of farm labor in Guatemala is discounted against lower labor costs in Vietnam. In every producing country, coffee farm workers remain at the mercy of the international market.
Fortunately coffee was one of the first crops to be widely incorporated in the Fair Trade movement. Although organic or Fair Trade coffees can be found in most regions, often you still need to ask. Your inquiries help grow the market for ethically farmed and harvested products. Do not underestimate this simple act.
Seven year old children are forced to work 70 hour weeks. Besides the grueling work at the expense of school, these children in India and Uzbekistan are exposed to a toxic brew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Only recently have major manufacturers begun to respond to public concern about their sources of raw materials. Find out more and add your voice: End Child Labor in Cotton
To run the cane plantations of the Americas during the colonial period, Europeans relied on ruthlessly exploited African slaves. Still a highly labor-intensive crop, cane remains under the shadow of that shameful past. Brazil’s much-heralded ethanol miracle is built on the backs of “forced” cane workers. Small producers must compete with heavily subsidized European beet sugar. This further depresses prices and adds to the burden of small scale farmers. While there is no easy solution, Fair Trade Sugar Makes a Difference! In the Dominican Republic, over half a million Haitian men are trafficked to work in the cane fields under brutal conditions.
This page from the International Labor Rights Forum has very good information on a few of these product categories along with contact information for some major purveyors: Stop Child & Forced Labor.
Many more videos about other products may be viewed on the VIDEO PAGES of our Meetup site.
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