Fair trade may not be as fair as you think. In fact, some of what is passing as fair trade could actually be slave trade. Not to mention child labor.
The apparel industry is one of the major culprits. Bloomberg revealed that Victoria’s Secret uses forced child labor in the West African nation of Burkina Faso to pick the cotton used for its bras and panties.
Victoria’s Secret struck a deal to buy fair trade and organic cotton, and labeled the products “Good for women.” The group Fairtrade International even certified the cotton. According to their website, their standards — which are met by producers and traders — are designed to address the imbalances and injustices of conventional trade.
“Fairtrade is an alternative approach to conventional trade and is based on a partnership between producers and consumers,” according to the Fairtrade website. “Fairtrade offers producers a better deal and improved terms of trade. This allows them the opportunity to improve their lives and plan for their future. Fairtrade offers consumers a powerful way to reduce poverty through their every day shopping.”
But a system ostensibly designed to empower and liberate poor people in countries of color is poorly enforced. Plus, pesticide- and herbicide-free organic agriculture is more labor intensive, creating an incentive for those who would exploit forced labor.
Victoria’s Secret is not alone in its use of forced labor. Several years ago, the popular behemoth clothing company Gap admitted that it unwittingly used child labor in India. Traffickers sent child workers to Delhi to toil without pay in dirty, cramped conditions, eating fly-infested food and sleeping on the roof.
The apparel brand Forever 21 has come under fire for using forced child labor in Uzbekistan. According to Change.org, millions of children in the central Asian nation are removed from school and forced to work in the fields during the harvest season.
Dubai itself was built on slave labor from Africa, the Philippines and the nations of the Indian subcontinent. Although Tiger Woods scrapped plans to build a golf course and luxury resort in the Persian Gulf resort city, he did not speak up against the use of slave labor.Oakland-based Slavery Footprint, aided by a grant from Google to fight modern-day slavery, estimates that you might have as many as 53 slaves working for you. You might not own slaves, but they make the products that everyone purchases.
Slavery Footprint identifies China as the nation with the lion’s share of the world’s slaves, which includes much of the country’s 150 million migrant workers. Children in China have been allegedly kidnapped, forced to work under horrible conditions, underfed and unpaid. They work long hours and live on-site in sweatshop factories. And seamstresses retire in their thirties due to failing eyesight.
In Argentina, police arrested five men for keeping 95 workers, including 11 children, in slave-like conditions on a blueberry farm. The company, blueberry exporter Baldones SA — which is reportedly a free trade enterprise—threatened the workers with armed guards and housed them in an overcrowded shed. Workers from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, as well as poor Argentinians, are subjected to forced labor. Similarly, a Brazilian homebuilder faces fines for placing workers in slave-like conditions at construction sites.
Twenty-first century slavery is a worldwide problem, with the global trafficking of up to 27 million people taking place each year. Paid nothing and unable to leave, slaves help create the common products that are sold to unsuspecting consumers, including food, clothing and the minerals that are mined for use in electronic goods.
In India, eleven children go missing each hour, and four of them are never found. Most wind up in child sex rings or exploitative businesses, or as free labor for rich families. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of girls are used as domestic servants.
Wealthy Trinidadians are importing poor people from Guyana and the Caribbean islands to be used as virtual slaves in private homes, their passports taken away from them. Child slavery is a widespread practice in Haiti, with so-called Restavek children sent by their poverty-stricken families to work as free domestic servants in other households.
And America is not immune. For example, a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature would require businesses to post an anti-human trafficking hotline sign. Last month, a jury found a Los Angeles man guilty of forcing 48 Thai workers to work in his restaurants for little or no pay and live in cramped living conditions. The man threatened the workers with deportation if they refused. Further, Change.org accused Trader Joe’s of selling slave-picked produce. More than 1,000 farmworkers in Florida have been identified as slave laborers, with human trafficking remaining a serious problem in states such as California, Maryland, North Carolina and Washington.
Nor is the hip-hop community free from blame. Clothing lines such as Sean John and Rocawear have reportedly benefited from sweatshop labor in Honduras.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich has doubled down on his insistence that America relax its child labor laws. He called such laws “truly stupid” and suggested that children should work in schools as janitors in order to develop a work ethic. In the early twentieth century, the U.S. enacted child labor laws. Factory owners preferred child workers because they were easier to control and less likely to strike. But now, there are efforts to weaken the laws protecting children from labor exploitation that harms their development and ability to get a proper education.
As Americans open their gifts this holiday season, or buy presents for loved ones and friends, it is worth asking who made those products, and whether the workers were paid to make them. It is something to think about.