By Joey White – Communications Coordinator
Are you guilty for contributing to the infringement of someone’s most basic labor rights? This certainly isn’t a question that pops into our head on a regular basis, but unfortunately in most cases the answer will be yes. The use of fair labor practice is not typically the first thing we think of when making purchases, but conscious consumer action can play a key role in promoting labor rights around the world.
The Reality of Labor Rights Infringements
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 18.7 million workers are exploited in the private sector economy, with nearly 68% being victims of forced labor in the areas of agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing. Forced labor is defined by the ILO as “situations where people are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.”
Employees in corporate supply chain factories are routinely faced with issues of safety, less than adequate wage, working hours, and the ability to unionize. These factories are often located in developing nations due to what is referred to as the “race to the bottom” where corporations move their supplier factories from country to country as labor laws and unions become more prevalent in search of less regulation and ultimately lower labor costs.
The technology and garment industries are particularly notorious for the use of exploitative labor practices, with famous examples including conditions so poor in China’s Apple factories workers were driven to suicide, and the collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory killing more than 1,100 due to poor building safety regulation.
Misconceptions of Being a Mindful Consumer
One common misconception people have when trying to be mindful of their purchasing practices is sticking to locally sourced products. Unfortunately, local does not always translate to fairly sourced. In terms of produce, local farms are often tended by day laborers, many of which are undocumented, and therefore vulnerable to exploitation due to language barriers, fear of being deported and an ultimate dedication to providing for their family despite any undesirable conditions they may face.
Another important factor to keep in mind when considering fair labor practice as a consumer is to note that although a company may have had issues in the past with their use of exploitative labor does not mean they continue to use these practices today. For example, Nike, who was once outed for the use of child labor and sweatshops, is now at the forefront of the fair labor game, promoting transparency in their supply chains.
Corporations often use public relations campaigns to boast great strides in way of labor practice, but in reality these conditions are not always something to brag about. For example, major global retailer H&M has successfully branded themselves as being at the leading edge of the fight for fair working conditions in the garment industry, however their actual implementation of this alleged commitment leaves much to be desired as they disconnect themselves from their supply factories. The company continually stresses the fact that they do not own any of their own factories, and instead uses contracted suppliers. H&M then keeps their hands clean of any labor rights infringement by placing all blame on these contracted suppliers.
Tools to Stay Informed
Being mindful of the ethical conditions associated with your favorite products is not an easy task. Fortunately, there are tools out there to help us make mindful decisions as a consumer.
Modern slavery often feels like an issue that isn’t relatable to your average consumer, but this website and mobile app really puts slavery into perspective by answering the question “how many slaves work for you?” The organization strives to build awareness and create action against modern-day slavery as well as works with businesses to eradicate the use of slave labor. The site also provides dozens of ethically sound brands in many different categories including food, fashion and sporting goods.
This website asks the question “how sustainable is your favorite brand?” Their scoring is heavily based on environmental concerns, but also details concerns for labor practices. The organization ranks each brand on several different variables and provides sources for the basis of each of their ratings.
While this promising app isn’t available in North America just yet, the Australian born organization Good On You is set to come to the United States in February 2017. The app promises “fashion without harm” by rating popular brands on their impact across supply chains including child labor, forced labor worker safety, wage and the ability to unionize.
With these tools we can stay informed as a consumer, and play our part in promoting the sanctity of labor rights around the world.
For more information and resources on labor rights check out our website!