Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Reexamination of The Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor

Though it has been several months since the release of The Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, a careful examination of the report’s pros and cons is still in order. The intent of the report is to provide a reliable source for consumers and companies so they can make ethical choices about where they purchase and source products from, with the hope that if people do not purchase products tainted by child/forced labor, we can eliminate the problem.

The study was created by the Department of Labor’s International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) and details the products produced in various countries where child and forced labor are often used (both in the formal and informal economy). The study covers 122 products in 58 different countries, which are in various stages of development and are located in every region of the world. Some of the more commonly listed goods are sugarcane, gold, carpets, coffee, cotton, rice, coal and cocoa.

The findings of the report are certainly useful for those who are interested in pushing for a world free from child and forced labor, but there are also several limitations to the study. Though I cannot provide a comprehensive evaluation of the pros and cons of this study I do want to briefly examine some of them.

The first pro is that the study provides a general guide that consumers and companies can use when choosing where to purchase or source products from. Though some of this information is already public knowledge (in that you could do an online search and find that child labor occurs in Thailand’s shrimp industry), this report puts information about the nature of many different products in one place, while providing further informational sources should one wish to know more.

The second pro, is that the report provides a means of empowerment for consumers. If someone is interested in buying shrimp, they could use this resource to make a more informed decision about their purchase. If the bag or fishmonger says the shrimp comes from Thailand, they can buy from another brand or store that does not. Consumers can also use this knowledge to petition companies not to purchase potentially tainted products from these countries (note: see con below).

The third pro is that the report provides a mechanism for change. Though it is likely that not every country or every product produced using child or forced labor is included in this list, it can provide people and governments a means to put pressure on other governments to make changes. Governments are more likely to take action when they realize that information of this nature is widely distributed. In a similar way to how countries react to the Trafficking in Persons Report each year, no one wants to be portrayed as a safe haven for child or forced labor. This report hopefully will lead to stronger mechanisms for preventing and prosecuting such cases within the countries examined.

Despite the benefit of these reports, there are also a few cons, which should be taken seriously when examining the report. The first and perhaps most important con to this study is that it is not very useful for highly manufactured items. For example, my shirt might be made in Untied States (though unlikely) in a factory where there is no forced/child labor and the shirt says it is made in the US. What I do not know, as a consumer, is where the cotton came from, how the dyes where made, where the machines that made the shirt came from and where the materials used to make the machine that make the shirt originated. I may make this purchase believing I am not contributing to child/forced labor since my shirt was made in the US. In reality though, I may be contributing to the problem because the cotton came from India or the metals came from a forced labor mine in the Congo. This guide while useful cannot help me make an ethical decision about that purchase.

The second con is that while the report acts as a shaming mechanism for governments, it misses a primary contributor to the problem, corporations. While governments are responsible for regulating the production of items in their country, companies are contributing (knowingly or not) to the problem by purchasing from other companies that use child/forced labor. Corporations need to share in the responsibility and blame for this and this report avoids holding them accountable by seemingly placing all the blame on governments. Corporations can be a force for good in this fight, but are still not being held accountable by those who could, including the US Government.

The final con is that there is a danger in condemning a whole industry within a country due to child or forced labor. While it is a good general rule of thumb, it can also severely harm companies that are trying to do the right thing. If we condemn all cocoa producers in a country, but not all of the producers use child or forced labor, they too will suffer when consumers demand a company stop sourcing items from that country. The report in some sense encourages people to punish whole countries for the practices of some or perhaps even a majority of companies in that country with regard to the product of interest. We should encourage companies that do not use child or forced labor, and large corporations should reward them by sourcing from these companies. Additionally condemning every company in a country can be particularly harmful to the companies that are trying to do the right thing since their labor costs etc. tend to be higher. Companies that are trying to do the right thing are likely the first ones to feel the impact of a boycott, which really seems to defeat the purpose of such a ban.

I encourage everyone to take a glance at the report here. It is definitely a great contribution to society and a useful resource for reducing child/forced labor (which sometimes includes trafficking), but the report should be seen both for what it does and does not do.

No comments:

Post a Comment