Labor Department exposes goods made by child labor
Date of publication: September 10, 2009
Source: Associated Press
By Sam Hananel
A new Labor Department report identifies more than 58 countries where child labor or forced labor is used to make hundreds of goods — from coffee grown in Colombia to Christmas decorations made in China — that often end up in the United States.
The government wants American companies and consumers to know about the chance these products are made under conditions in which children and other workers are exploited and abused.
"We want to engage with these countries and corporations that may have their hands in the wrong places here and try to correct this," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "I do hope that the major corporations will take it seriously."
Despite some progress in curtailing child and forced labor, the problem continues to persist with products from nearly every region of the world, from West African cocoa farms to Latin American sugar cane to Indian silk.
The report, being made public Thursday, was mandated by Congress. It does not name foreign companies that use child labor or U.S. businesses that purchase such goods. Solis said the intent is not to penalize companies or bar trade with any country.
Rather, the goal is to raise public awareness about child or forced labor used in the production of goods on the list and encourage voluntary efforts by U.S. companies to make sure raw goods from foreign suppliers are not derived with exploitive labor.
"My hope is we can get more support from consumers so they understand and become more vigilant to see where items are being produced," Solis said.
Some of the most common products listed include raw materials like cotton, sugar cane, coffee, rice, cocoa and bricks. The list was issued Thursday along with the agency's annual report detailing efforts in 141 countries and territories to combat child labor.
"Knowing which products are produced by child slaves may impact consumer behavior," said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who has spent nearly two decades working to end child labor practices. "These reports shed light on who and where we need to focus our efforts to stop the worst forms of child labor."
Harkin and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., have spent years working with the U.S. chocolate industry to reduce child labor on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
Some companies, like San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. and Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., have specific policies that monitor suppliers to make sure no child labor is used in their products.
Earlier this year, for example, Levi Strauss reacted to reports of forced child labor in cotton farming in Uzbekistan by banning its suppliers from using that nation's cotton until labor conditions change, spokeswoman Kelley Benander said.
Coca-Cola, which buys sugar cane around the world, faces tough a challenge based on the new data. The report says child or forced labor is involved in sugar cane production in Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, Panama, the Philippines, Thailand and Uganda.
Coca-Cola spokeswoman Kerry Kerr said the company continuously assesses all suppliers "to ensure that strong policies and practices are in place to help avoid child labor."
While the Labor Department cannot stop private companies from buying products made with child or forced labor, it can seek to prevent the federal government from purchasing those goods. The agency is proposing to update an executive order first issued by President Bill Clinton in 1999 that prohibits federal purchases of goods made by child or forced labor.
The new executive order would contain 29 products from 21 countries, once it is finalized after a period for public comments.