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“Were Any Humans Harmed in the Making of This Product?” An Ethical Analysis of Child Labor and the Need for Bolder Enforcement and Accountability

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robyn McCullough
September 25, 2021

Consumers often ask themselves, “Were any animals hurt in the making of this product?” and do not realize that they should also ask themselves, “Were any humans hurt in the making of this product?” For the first time since 2016, the number of children working in forced labor increased. Currently, an estimate of 160 million children work in forced labor globally and approximately $400 billion in goods made with forced labor are imported into the United States each year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a major contributor to the increase in child labor, pushing more families into poverty and making them reliant on additional income. The problem was exacerbated when schools physically closed and some children in rural areas did not have a distance-learning option; when children are at home, they are expected to contribute. Most of the increase has been in Côte d’Ivoire, where 45% of the world’s cocoa supply is produced, an area that is notorious for its reliance on forced labor. 

Since 2015, the United States has prohibited any import made wholly or in part with forced labor, repealing the Consumptive Demand Clause, which previously allowed imports made with forced labor if demand for the goods outweighed domestic production. Yet, the United States continues to import goods that we know are unethically sourced. Some may argue that it would be unethical for the United States to abruptly halt imports from developing countries that have few alternative options to provide economic support for their people, even if by United States standards the working conditions are considered unethical. For example, the culture in many countries widely accepts children working in harsh conditions to help provide support for their families and they may not understand why they are being economically punished. Economists of this viewpoint argue that all industrialized countries have gone through a period of “sweatshop” conditions as they advanced, including the United States and United Kingdom, and to hold lower-income countries to the same United States standards is ethnocentric. Additionally, corporations in the cocoa industry, such as Mars, Hershey and Nestle, have been promising for decades that they can eliminate the instances of child labor from their supply chains without government intervention or penalty.

Critics of the “sweatshop theory” establish that forced labor is morally unacceptable no matter the circumstances. They argue that this is not necessarily an ethnocentric view due to globalization, which creates a cultural convergence of generally accepted morality agreed upon by most countries. The argument that all nations must go through a “sweatshop” phase to progress is debunked by proving that forced labor conditions are economically inefficient. In fact, improved working conditions lead to better economic outcomes, hence the abandonment of child labor practices in industrialized nations. Furthermore, decades of unfulfilled promises by corporations have proven that they cannot fix their supply chain without higher penalties for non-compliance.

Corporations often cite the difficulty of auditing their sources due to treacherous conditions and lack of technology to monitor remote sources. New innovations in blockchain technology have proven to be a viable option for tracing products even in difficult locations. Mars generated $40 billion in sales in 2020; the corporations can afford to invest in the technology if they are truly committed to ethical sourcing, but corporations’ first priority are shareholders. Corporations benefit from the ability to claim ignorance about the conditions of their supply chains. Simply put, the human beings at the bottom of the supply chain are valued less than profits to shareholders. The trend of putting human rights second to the availability of products continues despite the 2015 repeal of the Consumptive Demand Clause. 

Federal and state governments must take bold action to hold corporations accountable. The federal government should use its authority to fine corporations for imports of forced labor, a punitive tool that is rarely used. On the state level, legislation for more transparency can be passed. California established the California Supply Chain Transparency Act of 2015, which requires all companies doing business in California who identify themselves as a retailer or as manufacturers on their California tax returns, and who have annual gross receipts over $100M, to disclose use of forced labor in their supply chain on their website. The idea is that consumers have a right to know how their products are produced and have a choice to take their business elsewhere.

Additionally, those in management positions can educate themselves on the prevalence of forced labor. The Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs maintains a globally credible List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, which currently identifies 156 products from 77 countries. This information can help to raise awareness and be referenced in the procurement process. Finally, consumers cannot demand change if they are unaware of the issue. It is everyone’s responsibility to help inform others of the issue of child labor so that we can work together to eliminate it. 

Author: Robyn McCullough is a public sector management consultant with a focus on change management and internal communications. She earned her Master of Public Administration from the University of San Francisco and her Bachelor of Business Administration from American Military University while serving active duty in the United States Air Force. You can reach Robyn at [email protected].

Twitter Handle: https://twitter.com/mccullougrs

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