In 2012, approximately 21 million people worked in forced labor worldwide, including in industrialized nations like the United States. More than one quarter of these people were children. Overall, 215 million children labor worldwide, half of them in dangerous industries, often without adequate employment and workplace protections.
74 countries have been identified as locales where child labor and forced labor are used, and much of it occurs in the context of production of basic commodities highly valued in the West, including coffee, chocolate, gold, cotton, beef and sugarcane. Children are also forced into sex work and domestic labor like cleaning and caring for children.
While the United States might have officially ended slavery with the Civil War, slavery, forced labor and related exploitative labor practices endure across the world, including in the U.S. In fact, the use of such practices has actually increased worldwide in recent years. What’s going on? Why is the global economy so heavily reliant on forms of labor that should have gone out with the dodo?
The answer to this troubling question is a complex one that lies in part in the demand for cheap, readily-available goods across the West. Companies rallying to meet this demand are also driven by internal pressures for profit, with demands from their boards and shareholders. Their desire to profit at all costs mean that they cut corners when it comes to sourcing, protecting their workers, monitoring working conditions and ensuring that their products are produced without the use of slave, forced, child and other kinds of exploitative labor.
Groups like the International Labor Organization that are concerned with the use of exploitative labor in the U.S. are attempting to address it with tools like a free program for businesses that want to commit to sourcing their labor more responsibly, but they aren’t making much headway. They’re going up against a complex and interconnected system that pits business against children and workers from marginalized populations like ethnic and cultural minorities.
Complying with the standards involved in ensuring that a supply chain remains free of exploitative labor and the use of children means careful monitoring and high levels of transparency. It also requires giving up some profits, something many companies are reluctant to do — after all, many relocate specifically to the Global South in order to evade oversight and increase profits thanks to lower labor costs and other operating costs.
The only way to change the culture of labor is to increase pressure on companies to do the right thing by their workers. Members of the public can push for slave and child labor-free goods, demanding products produced ethically, but this requires a functional and accurate system for identifying and certifying products, to prevent companies from simply claiming that their products meet standards when this is not in fact the case.
Another, and potentially far more effective, mechanism for getting children out of the workforce and into school where they belong is the application of shareholder activism. In shareholder activism, individuals and groups buy up blocks of shares and coordinate together to vote on key issues when a company brings them to shareholders for the vote. They can force people off the board, elect representatives who will promote their interests and force a company to behave with more integrity and accountability.
This kind of activism can require deep pockets, especially for multinationals, but it can be a profound way to send a message. As one company begins to establish a more responsible industry standard and customers turn to it, competitors will be forced to do the same, even if it means a drop in profits. That can create a snowball effect of change, and make the world safer for children.
Not sure about how much this affects you personally? Use the Slavery Footprint tool to get a grim and personal look at how many slaves work for you. Enter some details about your habits and lifestyle, and it will provide information about the kinds of people involved in the production of the goods and services you use.
Photo credit: Christine Boose