Popular Types of Unethical Labour Found In Many Of Our Favourite Consumer Brands
Slave Labour: The most severe case of forced human labor is that of working with no pay. This usually happens in under-developed countries like Africa. There are reports, documentaries and statistics that show and prove incidents of this type of forced labor. Workers are forced to work for several hours in conditions that are horrendous. They are not paid for the work they render and are not even given enough food, water, shelter, clothing and proper living environment. This kind of forced labor is like slavery. Some of the common consumer products exploiting slave labour are diamonds, gold, silver, cocoa/cacao, coconut and coffee.
Kidnapping: Another extreme case of forced labour is where human traffickers search some of the poorest countries in the world, seeking out the most vulnerable members of their population. They kidnap their victims, transporting them across country borders and onto farms and manufacturing units. They then sell their victims to the management, who in turn treat them like property. Many human trafficking victims are women and children who don’t have the ability to defend themselves against their captors.
Human Trafficking: Another case of forced labor also includes human trafficking. Most of the people affected by this are those who usually relocate to find work as there are no jobs within there own local area. They are offered a job in another location or country by someone who they know or don’t personally know. After being offered and having accepted the salary rates, job description and free processing of travel documents, these clueless individuals are then sent to a place – and it is not the place that they signed up for. Working with lesser pay rate on a job that is different from what was offered to them, they are usually locked up by their employers who fear that they would not come back once they hit the street. Some of the most common trades that practice this kind of forced labor are garments factories, fishing companies, food processing plants and even industrial plants – most of which are operating in Asia.
Labour brokers: Local brokers approach migrants who’ve traveled to the area in search of work. Traveling brokers travel to the countries surrounding the growing area and recruit workers to migrate to the farms. Brokers promise fair wages, adequate living conditions, safe and healthy working conditions and education for children. What the workers find once they reach the farms is much different. They are presented a bill for job placement and traveling expenses from their broker. Often their new employer charges them a debt for living expenses and work equipment. Some workers must surrender their passports and other documentation until their debt bondage is worked off. Once families arrive at a farm their chances of ever rising out of poverty drastically decreases. The education promised to the children by the labour brokers is nonexistent. This lack of education will prevent them from ever finding work outside of the farming industry. It’s incredibly common for entire families to work alongside each other in the fields.
Direct Child Labour: Due to poverty many children are forced to go to work to help support their families. Manufacturers and farmers lure children with promises of high wages and fair treatment, often times leading them to believe that their living conditions will be better than their conditions at home. Once the children arrive at the farm and discover the truth it’s too late for them to leave. In some cases relatives of the child ‘lease’ them to manufacturers and farmers. The relative delivers the child and agrees to leave him or her there for a certain amount of time. Often the relative receives a onetime payment upon delivering the child, though some farmers refuse to pay until the child’s time is completed. These relatives are told the same lies about the living conditions on the farms; they leave the child there believing that they will be educated and cared for during their stay.
Indirect Child Labour: Indirect child labour happens when a family member that is directly employed by a factory or farm is given large quotas they can’t possibly fill by themselves. Often the entire family will work to harvest their quota of crops or make their share of consumer items, and only the family member directly employed by the farm receives pay.
Main consumer goods that utilise child labour and human rights are:
Mica, a key ingredient for the billion-dollar beauty industry, is mined by children in an impoverished region of India.While rich cosmetic companies count their cash children risk their lives to put the ‘sparkle’ into our cosmetics. Even though child labour is illegal it still happens more than you know
In the jungles of India the ground literally sparkles. Beneath the thick tropical forests which make a home for some of India’s poorest tribal communities, the earth is rich with valuable
Although few people have heard of mica, it is a valuable mineral deposit used as an insulator in electronic goods, and also as the ‘secret ingredient’ in cosmetic products to give them their sparkle and shine.
As per a report featured in The Sydney Morning Herald not too long ago, Mica, an important ingredient contained in many cosmetics is actually mined by small children located in an impoverished town of India. To tell you a bit about the ingredient – Mica is a glittery silicate mineral normally used as a colouring agent in cosmetics. It is the ingredient which adds that extra shiny pop to the nail polish, eye shadow, lip gloss and hundreds of other types of cosmetic items that we use every day.
Although there is no harm in liking a smack of shine and glitter, unfortunately, children who are mining this Mica are not too fond of it. A large percentage of Mica which gets used in the manufacturing of cosmetics and other similar products such as automated paint, is imported from eastern part of India.
Since a large majority of Mica production in India is illegal in nature, the child labour employed to procure it is also kept under the wraps. However, when ardent reporters investigated the matter further, they discovered young children working tirelessly throughout the day, only to mine this expensive mineral so that you can get that extra shine in your cosmetics.
The work done by these kids is very dangerous and hard. The kids risk scorpion and snakebites in the hollow caves they mine this Mica in; these caves even collapse every now and then. Furthermore, these children also suffer from regular skin infections and cuts, apart from respiratory problems such as asthma, silicosis and bronchitis.
Let’s tell you about this small 12-year-old child named Mohammed Salim Ansari who mines for Mica on a daily basis. While hacking rocks to find some Mica, he tells reporters that he doesn’t like the job much. There is no reason that he should like it as well.
Every kilogram of Mica that Mohammed turns in, he’s paid a meagre five rupees (equivalent of eight cents). This is in stark contrast to the price Mica commands in the international market. Good quality Mica easily fetches many dollars per kilogram, and its’ price can sometimes go as high as 1000 dollars per kilogram.
Cosmetic company Estee Lauder, Bobby Brown, Clinique and MAC, informed The Sydney Morning Herald that the amount of Indian origin Mica used in their products constitutes less than 10% of their overall consumption. They asserted that they are pretty confident that none of their products are associated with practices such as child labour and unfair working conditions. Other cosmetic giants like Napoleon Perdis, Maybelline, Redken, Yves Saint Laurent, Lancome and L’Oreal simply refused to answer questions related to their Mica sourcing.
With all the shimmery make-up available on counters out there, who knows most of it may be getting its shine through child labourers in poor towns of India.
Palm Oil has been widely criticized for how it is harvested, the main issue being the clearing of rainforests and the loss of habit for animals such as orangutang's. However many companies in Indonesia and Malaysia (where the majority of palm oil is sourced) are also using forced, child and trafficked labour. Palm oil is used in everything from housecleaning products, food to cosmetics and generally when something is labelled vegetable oil it means that it is derived from palm oil plantations.
Palm oil is a versatile, highly saturated vegetable oil and is semisolid at room temperature, making it ideal for use in soaps, moisturizers and solid makeup. Palm oil is derived from the fruit of palm trees, which grow in tropical, humid regions. Small palm plantations are scattered across seventeen countries but Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest producers.
The presence of palm oil in products can be hard to identify because there are over two hundred names for the ingredient. In cosmetic products its most commonly listed by its botanical name, elaeis guineensis. Increased demand for natural ingredients has increased the demand for palm oil. Companies want the cheapest raw ingredients possible, leaving plantations to cut as many growing costs as possible. Unfortunately, many plantations have resorted to forced and child labor to increase their overall profit.
Palm plantations acquire their workers in a number of ways. Indonesia, Malaysia and the countries surrounding them are incredibly poverty stricken. Labour brokers work as middle men, recruiting workers for the palm plantations. Some of these workers have migrated to the area by choice in search of income for their families. Other workers are recruited by traveling brokers who convince them to migrate. The brokers promise fair wages, good working conditions and adequate living arrangements to lure the workers to the plantations. Traveling costs are initially paid by the broker, then upon arrival at the plantations workers are told they must pay back these costs. Brokers also charge a work placement fee.
In addition to the brokers’ charges, workers find that they must pay for their housing, food and even protective equipment. The workers are immediately under debt bondage to their broker and their employer, putting them in worse financial situations than they were in their home country. The workers have no choice but to stay at the plantation and work off these debts, which only grow the longer they reside on the plantation. Migrant workers are also forced to hand over their passports and any other documentation once they arrive at the plantations. These documents are held by the brokers or plantation management to ensure that the workers can’t leave before their debts are paid.
Most palm plantations do not directly employ child labour. Instead they contract with the father or another worker that serves as head of the family. Large quotas are given to the single worker, which can’t be met without the help of the whole family. Many plantations also offer a bonus to workers who harvest more than their quota of palm fruit. This indirectly encourages child labour. It is incredibly common for entire families to work plantations together, with only one of them officially being paid.
Forced and child labourers face incredibly hazardous conditions while working on the palm plantations. Workers must climb thorny trees while holding sharp knives in order to harvest the palm fruit. Other workers are equipped with knives attached to heavy poles. It is very uncommon to find a palm plantation worker that isn’t covered in deep scars from work injuries.
Thousands of small fruits make up one palm bunch, which can weigh twelve to twenty five kilograms. It can take up to four workers to transport the bunches across the plantations. The combination of physically demanding labour and high tropical temperatures causes many workers to suffer from heat exhaustion.
Palm fruits are susceptible to many bugs and viruses; workers fight these with highly toxic chemical pesticides. Trees are sprayed without the use of protective equipment, causing a variety of health problems to the workers. Lung, liver and kidney disease, as well as many types of cancers have been linked to pesticide exposure.
Children of plantation workers not only help with the palm harvesting but are also responsible for other chores in the fields. Very young children weed the plantation while their older relatives harvest and transport the heavy palm bunches. Other children who aren’t strong enough to harvest spend days bent over in the fields, collecting loose fruit that falls from the bunches. Many workers suffer physical abuse at the hands of plantation managers if they don’t work long enough, hard enough or fast enough.
In an effort to hide the horrific conditions of the plantation from the local community, local workers are never hired. All employees and their families live next to the fields they tend. They are subjected to living conditions that are as hazardous and unhealthy as their working conditions. Their ‘homes’ are small, unventilated buildings that have no clean water, electricity or basic hygiene facilities. They are provided with only the cheapest food and many suffer from malnutrition. In extreme cases workers are locked into their homes by plantation managers to prevent their escape.
Children of undocumented migrant workers are the most vulnerable victims on palm plantations. They are considered stateless, and therefore have no access to education or healthcare. The lack of education ensures that they have no hope of escaping their poverty. If they survive their childhoods they have no choice but to go to work directly for the plantation they were raised on.
The lack of identifying documents prevents migrant workers from being able to leave the plantations. Without their paperwork they have no hope of finding a new job or securing transportation home. Workers who do risk escaping often find they have nowhere to turn. They are subjected to discrimination and cultural barriers from the surrounding communities and are victims of law enforcement and local governments that are just as corrupt as the plantations they’ve escaped. In fact in Malaysia it is actually police policy to return escaped workers back to their plantations, as they are always in debt to their employers for their housing and food.
Read more about the exploitation of child labour in the Palm Oil industry over at World Vision here
Much of cocoa is harvested in West Africa using some of the worst forms of child labour, human trafficking and other forms of labour exploitation.
Over seventy percent of commercial cocoa products are grown in West Africa, in Ghanna and along the Ivory Coast. There are close to two million small cocoa farms in these areas, which produce over two million tonnes of cocoa every year. Because there are so many farms bringing product to the market the buyers are able to control the price of the goods. Farmers are forced to take whatever the buyers are paying, and often times it barely covers their production costs.
In order to cut production costs and increase net profits many farmers resort to human trafficking and child labour, in violation of the International Labour Organization. These workers are paid little to no wages and exposed to incredibly hazardous situations.
Once workers have arrived at the farm they work from sunrise to late in the evening in the cocoa fields. Cocoa trees are extremely susceptible to bugs and viruses; workers treat the trees with strong chemical pesticides with no protective gear. Exposure to these pesticides causes a variety of health issues including nausea, headaches, diarrhea, and in extreme cases liver and kidney diseases and cancer.
The pesticides the workers are exposed to are far from the only danger they face on the farms. Cocoa is harvested with heavy, well sharpened machetes. Because the cocoa trees are unstable pods higher on the bark are harvested with a large, sharp hooks attached to long rods. Once the pods are harvested they are broken open with the harvesting machetes or large wooden clubs. This equipment affords an overwhelming opportunity for especially child and women workers to injure themselves and each other. Unscarred workers are incredibly uncommon on the cocoa farms.
In addition to the hazardous working conditions, cocoa workers are subjected to inhumane living conditions. They often sleep together in small, windowless buildings that have only wooden pallets as beds. They have no access to fresh water or sanitary hygiene accommodations. Most cocoa workers are malnourished because the farmers provide only the cheapest, most basic food. On the most abusive cocoa farms workers are beaten if they act out or underperform and are locked in their buildings at night to prevent them from escaping.
The emotional and developmental damage suffered by cocoa workers is often as permanent as their physical scars. The farmers provide no education to the children, decreasing their chances of ever rising out of poverty or even leaving the farm. Many workers, especially the ones who were victims of human trafficking, work out their entire lives on the cocoa farm. They become permanent slaves with little hope of ever escaping.
Read more about the facts of cocoa farming here
Far from the espresso bars of Manhattan, Montreal and Madrid, children as young as seven can be seen lugging sacks of coffee along the Ruta del Café in southernmost Mexico. Some have been picking for hours under the hot Chiapas sun, the grasp of their tiny fingers the coffee’s first step in a long journey toward a waiting barista - Latte Illusion written by Marcus Stern
Coffee is the most popular beverage consumed in wealthier developed nations but grown almost exclusively in the poor and less developed nations. Coffee comes mostly from Latin America, Ethiopia, Kenya, Brazil, Vietnam, and Uganda. What was once an exotic luxury is now so entrenched in western culture as to be considered an everyday staple. Unfortunately, coffee is tied to a long history of human slavery and like the cocoa industry it remains a mainstream practice today that our consumer habits support.
While places such as Australia, West Indies and South America have a long history of using slave labour in the sugar industry, thankfully much of this has stopped today. However, recently sugar farmers within the Dominican Republic [one of the worlds greatest suppliers of sugar] have come under attack for how they take advantage of Haitians working for them - paying them virtually nothing yet charging them riduculus sums for housing.
Children of the workers may be starving, but they are not allowed to eat the cane sugar. Oftentimes the Haitian families working in these poor conditions are not even allowed to plant gardens for themselves. Haitians are not allowed in the Dominican schools nor are they allowed in public Dominican hospitals.
Years back coconut plantations were well known for taking advantage of human rights, however over the years they have discovered that monkeys pick 5 times the amount of coconuts than humans so it is no surprise to learn that most of our coconut products are picked by monkeys these days. Before your heart melts and you let out a "oh so cute", I must be frank that this is anything but cute. The monkeys are chained up, worked to exhaustion, not able to socialise with other monkeys and are taken from their mothers in the wild at a very young age. Whilst this may no longer be a human rights violation it has become an animal rights violation. To learn more about this horrible industry read my article on Did Monkeys Pick Your Coconuts
Cotton is one of the biggest agri-business industries and the majority of cotton is grown in poorer developing countries. The cotton industry employs over 300 million people, many of which are children. Read more about the unethical practices of the cotton growing industry here.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two of the biggest producers and exporters of cotton in the world. To produce this cotton repressive governments force their citizens [often doctors, teachers, business owners] to pick cotton for one or two months of the year for little food and virtually no pay.
Each citizen is given a daily quota. Those who fail to meet their targets or pick a low quality crop, risk losing their jobs or face harassment from employers or the government.
The work is dangerous. People can be left exhausted and suffering from ill-health and malnutrition after weeks of arduous labour. Those working on remote cotton farms are forced to stay in makeshift dormitories in poor conditions with insufficient food and drinking water.
Both countries export a vast majority of their cotton, which ends up in global supply chains and on the shelves of many high street shops worldwide - therefore there is a high chance you are supporting the corrupt government of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. You can read more about this issue at cottoncampaign.org
If you are reading this on a tablet, smart phone or computer monitor, then you may be holding a product of forced labor. Majority of electronics is touched in someway by Malayasia's forced labour. Big electronic companies us Malaysia as either a place to manufacture components that go into electronics or as a one stop shop that builds the entire gadget.
Then there is also the sourcing of raw material used in electronics that needs to come into consideration throughout the processing. Examples of common raw materials, include tin from Indonesia or cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both linked with child labour in dangerous mines.
SEAFOOD: [info coming soon]
JEWELLERY: [info coming soon]
Many popular consumer brands use international suppliers where unfair working conditions or unfair practices are considered to be a norm, these are also referred to as sweatshops.
Going by its definition, the US Department of Labour defines a sweatshop as a production place or factory which violates a minimum of two labour laws. These sweatshops feature very poor working conditions, unreasonable working hours, child labour practices, unfair wages and hardly any benefits for the workers. It is estimated that in developing countries as many as 250 million children in the age group of 5 to 14 years are forced into work.
Although America, Australia, UK and other developed nations have strong labour laws in comparison to undeveloped countries, these places are also not completely free of sweatshops. Products which are commonly sourced from such sweatshops include cosmetics, toys, chocolates, rugs, clothing, electronics and shoes. A study carried out in this regard had revealed that increasing the salary of these sweatshop workers by double may only make a difference of 1.8% to the end consumer cost of goods produced by them. This is quite ironical as consumers are nowadays ready to pay as much as 15% extra to ensure that a product did not originate from a sweatshop.
Majority of these sweatshop workers are women who are constantly subjected to physical, verbal and sexual abuse by their superiors. The garment industry is one of the big players in supporting this unethical trade.
To learn more about sweatshops in the garment industry read our article The Negative Impact Of Fast Fashion
The Power Of The Consumer
Many companies continue to profit year after year from using exploitative labour practices in their supply chain. Other companies however, have responded more positively and made commitments to using only ethically sourced products.
There is still alot that needs to be improved and only having a small percent of companies doing the right thing is not good enough. All companies need to commit to sourcing only ethical and environmentally sustainable ingredients. They also have to do the research behind their suppliers and ensure that fair conditions for farmers PLUS get assurances against forced, child and trafficked labour.
In 2001 the cocoa and coffee industry finally acknowledged the human atrocities occurring on the cocoa and coffee farms. Independent agencies like Fair Trade International, the Rainforest Alliance, and the UTZ Certification Foundation began setting minimum labour and pricing for the industry as well as safer production standards. The main goal of these organizations is to prevent the use of forced and child labour and end human trafficking. To obtain certification from one of these agencies companies must report all information pertaining to the sourcing of their cocoa and coffee. The respective agency verifies this information before awarding their certification.
Complying with the standards set by the watchdog agencies can prove to be very expensive. Many companies have developed their own methods of regulating the source of their products. Some companies have gone as far as to fund community development projects in the areas that produce their raw material. They focus on farmer education, and demonstrate how ripening and harvesting rotations can greatly increase the farms’ overall production. With more of the product to sell farmers can increase their profits without resorting to inhumane labour conditions.
Although steps are being taken to reform the industry the statistics regarding child labour and human trafficking is staggering. Only five percent of all commercial cocoa and coffee products are certified as fair trade. For this to change in the future buyers, exporters, processors, manufacturers, retailers and consumers must all be willing to pay the higher cost of ethically produced cocoa and coffee products and ensure that the workers and farmers are paid a fair wage.
The quickest, most effective way of eradicating human exploitation is for consumers to demand fair trade practices. Look for a Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance or UTZ Certification stamp. This includes cosmetics, personal care products, candy and a variety of food products. If no stamp is present, don’t buy the product. While certified products are often more expensive than their non-certified alternatives it’s important to consider why before you let the price discourage you.
Do you really want to save a few dollars at the expense of child labourers? Consumer demand dictates the AMOUNT of product produced; the time has come for consumer demand to dictate the WAY products are produced.
What can you do?
- Well, first and foremost you can go through the labels of your food, cleaning, personal care, clothing and make-up products and refrain from buying any products which use unethical practices or ingredients. Educate yourself about the products you buy. Do they contain mica or palm oil? Does the company your buying from support fairtrade? Are they transparent with their products and sourcing?
If in doubt send an email to the company and ask! Check out our guide on how to shop more ethically
- Learn about the companies you buy from, their policies on forced, child and trafficked labour. Has the company made a statement or policy outlining its commitment to eradicating child labour or poor working conditions? Is it certified Fairtrade?
- Speak against practices such as unfair working conditions and child labour, the more you talk about it and reveal the dark truths then the more you raise the awareness. Write to your Federal MP asking them to increase overseas aid, which provides valuable assistance in protecting vulnerable children from exploitation and abuse, helping to break the cycle between poverty and exploitation.
- In addition, your voice and purchasing power can put a lot of pressure on companies to improve their business practices, so contact them and tell them that you are no longer buying there product.
As responsible citizens it becomes a duty to stand against this practice and ensure that we use cosmetics and other products which have nothing to do with sweatshops, unfair working conditions or child labour.
Please take the time to educate yourself about where all your products come from and the effect they can have on the planet and your well-being. Also it would be great if you could share this article to help raise the awareness.
Thanks for reading!
The grind and grief behind the glamour - Sydney Morning Herald