Monday, March 01, 2010

The Business of Human Trafficking

Picture by Kay Chernush for the U.S State Department

Introduction: While law enforcement, government, and non-governmental organizations may be more obvious actors in the movement to end slavery, businesses and corporations have a vital role that is often overlooked. Slavery and labor exploitation flourish because we tolerate them and even benefit from them in the form of artificially cheap products. Corporations thus are in a unique position; some, due to their egregious actions or negligence promote slavery; others, due to their commitment to social responsibility, human rights, and fair-labor practices are actively combating slavery.

Jennifer K.: Though the chocolate industry has garnered a great deal of attention for the use of child labor and forced labor, it's far from the only tainted food. The Solidarity Center released a report in 2008 detailing the True Cost of Shrimp and the ways that workers are exploited to keep prices low. In the Department of Labor's report on goods made with forced labor and/or child labor, the shrimp industry was indicted for the use of both. Ambassador Mark Lagon, former Ambassador-at-Large for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, described the conditions endured by a slave laborer in the shrimp industry in Southeast Asia, "Aye Aye tried to escape this labor camp, but she was caught, dragged back, beaten, tied to a stake in the middle of the common yard, refused food and water, and had her head shaved. All this to demonstrate to her colleagues what would happen to those who tried to escape." Thailand's shrimp industry is particularly horrifying, utilizing children and teenagers, keeping workers locked to avoid escape, and using threats and violence. Moreover, "Thailand is the world’s largest seafood exporter and the United States is its largest buyer. One third of America’s shrimp is imported from Thailand."

Youngbee: Wal-Mart's notoriety with labor exploitation and child labor is widely known. Even an average Joe who isn't familiar with human trafficking remembers the news report on its child exploitation with the Mary-Kate clothing line. The company was caught multiple times for child labor violation since the early 2000. In year 2000, The New York Times reported on an internal Wal-Mart audit "pointed to extensive violation of child labor regulations." The children missed 60,767 breaks and 15,705 meal times. In 2005, the company once again was caught in violation of child labor regulations in Connecticut, where the labor department found 11 violations in three Wal-Mart stores. The good news is that Wal-Mart seems to respond to the bad publicity. In 2008, it told the suppliers to stop buying cottons from Uzbekistan, where children are exploited. But, this does not mean that it no longer relies on child labor and other forms of exploitation. It just means that at least, it began to recognize the gravity of the problem.

Shreya Exploitation and forced labor are widespread problems in today's society. In November 2009, International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released their 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame report, which apparel and textile companies that employ inhumane and exploitative labor practices in the name of providing cheap consumer goods. Many of these companies force laborers to work in dangerous conditions and pay them below poverty to poverty wages. If the workers attempted to protest or organize, some of the companies have used illegal practices, such has threatening and beating the workers, to prevent them from voicing their concerns. The official 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame inductees are:
  1. Abercrombie and Fitch
  2. Gymboree
  3. Hanes
  4. Ikea
  5. Kohl’s
  6. LL Bean
  7. Pier 1 Imports
  8. Propper International
  9. Walmart.
Many of these companies project a different image and seem to have inconsistent policies. For example, a recent article talked about how Ikea is working with Unicef to help fight child labor. However, according to the report, Ikea has been purchasing linen from a factory where four workers died as a result of unsafe working conditions. We are part of this problem and we can be part of the solution. There are many ways to support non-sweatshop products in the apparel industry. For more information on buying clothing made under ethical and just conditions, visit

Meg: Nike is a good example of how consumer pressure can be used to improve the labor practices of businesses. Many of us can remember the negative publicity and boycotting of Nike during the nineties, when it came under fire for slave labor conditions in its factories. In response to the negative exposure, Nike admitted to its mistakes, specifically with regards to children, and started taking steps to improve conditions. Although opinions seem to vary about whether Nike has sufficiently improved conditions in its factories, it is clear that public opinion is important to the company and has had an effect on its actions. However, these days it seems that so many large companies have been linked to slave labor that it has become almost commonplace. If we avoid becoming desensitized, I think we can do a lot of good in influencing labor practices just by using our power as consumers to discourage businesses with poor labor practices, and encourage businesses that are taking positive steps. For a great first step, check out's weekly Red Light Special.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:59 AM

    I have to add one more - or bump one of your top ten - to add this company to the list: American Apparel