by Elizabeth Grossman
Bananas in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Belize, and the Philippines; broccoli in Guatemala; carpets in India, Nepal, and Pakistan; cocoa in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Cameroon; coffee in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico, and Panama; cotton in Egypt, Brazil, China, Uzbekistan, and Turkey; electronics and toys in China, clothing in China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, and Argentina; rice in Brazil, India, and the Philippines; melons, onions, and tomatoes in Mexico What these products – along with diamonds, gold, sugarcane, shoes, rare earth and strategic metals – have in common is that they’re among the 130 different products made by child and forced labor in 71 countries listed in reports released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB).
Two of these reports are required by Acts of Congress, The Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor and the List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor; an Executive Order mandates the other, The List of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor. All describe the incidence of child and forced labor and what’s being done to address these issues, including making education accessible and affordable. What these reports do not do is trace these goods to market. But by showing how widespread this labor is and that it involves so many high-volume exports, they raise the distinct possibility that everyday consumer purchases could include the products of child and forced labor.
The products list, said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis on the release of these reports, is “a tool to generate action. It is meant to help foreign governments, industry groups, companies, unions, workers and consumers make informed decisions about the goods they produce and consume.”
The countries where this work is taking place literally ring the globe. In addition to those listed above, the others include Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Angola, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Jordan, Russia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. In addition to the long list of goods produced by child and forced labor, these reports – released annually for the past ten years – also document instances of child soldiering and prostitution, and of children engaged in enforced or entrapped domestic work.
Work done by child laborers
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), approximately 215 million children work as child laborers around the world. By rough calculation, this is slightly less than 10 percent of the world’s children under age 15. About 115 million – or 54 percent – of these child workers from age 5 to 17 engage in various forms of hazardous labor, says the ILO. This includes work underground, under water, in high or confined spaces, with dangerous machinery, carrying heavy loads, or with toxic substances. The number of people “trapped in forced labor worldwide,” the ILO estimates to be 12.5 million. But the ILO also notes that for many countries, data on child labor is either out-of-date, unreliable, or for some countries, is altogether unavailable, so there may be additional countries where child and forced labor not counted here is also taking place.
Agricultural crops account for the largest category of good manufactured by child and forced labor, followed by manufactured products, and then products mined and quarried. Of the agricultural crops, cotton, sugarcane, tobacco, coffee, and cattle top the list. In its surveys of child labor, the ILO includes children’s work on farms owned or operated by their parents and does not distinguish between different sizes or types of farms when assessing child labor. This is in contrast to U.S. labor regulations that allow “youths of any age” to “work at any time in any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents.”
A number of the listed agricultural products come from countries that are among the world’s top exporters, including to the United States. For example, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Ecuador, Belize, and the Philippines are among the world’s largest exporters of bananas; all are listed by the ILAB reports as producing bananas with child labor. Colombia and Guatemala are leading exporters of coffee to the U.S. The Ivory Coast and Ghana supply much of the U.S.’ cocoa imports; all of these countries are also listed by the ILAB child labor reports. (Cocoa producers in Ghana and the Ivory Coast are currently engaged with a program known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol that aims to reduce “the worst forms of child labor” by 70 percent in cocoa production in those countries by 2020.) Egypt and Uzbekistan, also listed by the ILAB reports, are among the world’s top cotton exporters.
The US response to child labor
While they’re intended to spur action, these reports do not trigger any enforcement of regulations. But, as the Department of Labor explained in an email, once an item appears on the list of goods produced with child or enforced labor, any U.S. government procurement officer in any U.S. government agency or government branch buying any of the listed products must make sure that the “vendor selling the item has made a good faith effort to ensure that the goods being sold are not made by forced or indentured child labor.” Additionally, “Under the procurement regulations implementing the Executive Order, federal contractors who supply products on a list published by the Department of Labor must certify that they have made a good faith effort to determine whether forced or indentured child labor was used to produce the items listed.” In addition to electronics and toys from China, shrimp from Thailand, diamonds from Sierra Leone, and stones from India, the current list includes pornography from Russia.
Importing goods made by “forced labor, including forced labor of children,” is also prohibited, explained the Department of Labor. In addition child labor standards are incorporated into all U.S. free trade agreements since the 1994 North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, a side agreement to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But given the large number of high volume production items on the ILAB report lists, enforcement and implementation of standards clearly remains a challenge.
One country not included in the ILAB reports is the United States. The Department of Labor (DOL) explains this by saying it is beyond the mandate of the program under which these reports are compiled. But DOL also says it “recognizes that both child and forced labor occur in the U.S.,” that the department is “committed to ensuring that U.S. labor laws are strictly enforced,” and that since 2009 it has added 350 new field investigators to increase enforcement. In 2010 the Department of Labor increased penalties for business violating child labor standards, and is currently taking public comment on its proposal to increase protections for young people working on U.S. farms, rules that have not been updated since they were established in 1970.
When it comes to manufactured products, bricks, garments, carpets, and footwear lead the list of goods made by children and those in forced labor. Gold, diamonds, and coal, are the mined products most widely produced by child and forced labor.
However, for no category of goods – neither agricultural, mineral, nor manufactured products – do the reports name individual companies or businesses. The Department of Labor explains this by saying, “It would be difficult for ILAB to attempt to track the identity of every company and industry using a good produced with child labor or forced labor. In addition, it is the Department’s experience that child labor and forced labor frequently occur in small local enterprises, for which company names, if they are available, have little relevance.” The names of these companies may be obscure, but in this age of global supply chains, they may be far from irrelevant as companies reach around the world for labor, raw materials, and locally out-of-season produce.
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.