Slavery on the Shelves

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Photo credit Solidarity Center @ Flickr

Let’s face it: labour exploitation affects nearly every sector of our global economy.

From seafood in Thailand to coffee in Brazil to clothing in Bangladesh, examples abound of consumer goods and services tainted with the scourge of modern slavery and forced labour. In 2014, the International Labour Organisation estimated forced labour generates US$ 150 billion in illegal profits per year, and major companies such as Nestlé and Patagonia have acknowledged the immense difficulty of monitoring complex, global supply chains for human rights abuses.

Unfortunately, the UK is no exception. A 2013 official figure from the British government estimated 13,000 people in Britain are victims of modern slavery. Typically foreign workers working in the agriculture and construction industry, victims are often trafficked to the UK from countries like Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam, Romania, and Slovakia. The United Kingdom did receive a favorable Tier 1 ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, but as the number of modern slavery victims suggests, there is certainly more work to be done.

One way for consumers to help fight against modern slavery is to understand which consumer products carry a heightened risk of being produced by child labour and forced labour. Many consumer goods we use everyday have been produced or sold using forced labour at one or several elements of the goods’ value chain. We highlighted a few industries where modern slavery has recently been uncovered:

Coffee

Last week, food giants Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts admitted they do not know the names of all their coffee bean suppliers in Brazil, a country home to more than 200,000 modern day slaves. FotorCreated Therefore, coffee beans from Brazilian plantations using forced labour could have very well been used in the companies’ production. The two corporations make up 39% of the global coffee market, with popular brands such as Nescafé, Nespresso, Coffee-mate, and Senseo, and the companies have publicly expressed concern over the findings

Thai Seafood

Despite a lowly tier three ranking by the US State Department’s trafficking in persons report and a yellow card warning by the EU, Kate Hodal of The Guardian writes, “slavery, trafficking, murder, and corruption at all levels of government still pervade Thailand’s billion dollar fishing industry.”

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Golden Prize Tuna Company recently lost a $1.3 million lawsuit over exploitative labour conditions.

Exact figures are unknown, but estimates range as high as 200,000 trafficked, unregistered fishing workers. In February, US President Barack Obama signed a bill banning imports of fish caught by slaves in Thailand, and the EU has threatened a full embargo of fish exports. If you would like to learn more, the Associated Press released a comprehensive investigation into Thai seafood industry that is available online.

Fashion

Exploitation in the cotton fields and harsh conditions in textile factories, among others, highlight the fashion industry’s infamous tie to modern slavery. You may remember the horrific 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka that claimed almost 3,500 casualties. You may have even read reports linking fashion to forced labour in India, Uzbekistan, and Bangladesh. However, as expert Sofie Ovaa of Stop Child Labour explains, “Companies that sell their products in Europe and the US have no clue where textiles come from. Maybe they know their first supplier and there are codes of conduct place, but further down the chain in the lower tiers it is very difficult to understand where the cotton comes from.”

These sectors only mark the tip of the iceberg: plantation slavery, forced labour in fishing, and poor working conditions in garment factories are not exclusively limited to the examples listed above. For more information, see the U.S. Department of Labour’s list of goods produced by Child Labour or Forced Labour here.

 

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