Imports at What Cost? Labour

The cost of cheap products is unfair labour

When we reach for cheap products, they don’t cost any less than the expensive products. They just externalize costs—that is, someone else pays the true cost of the product. When the factor that allows the cost to stay low is labour, the person who works in the field or in the factory for less than a fair wage is the one who pays. The real cost of goods includes the consequences of unpaid labor.

Give It To Me Quick

Outsourcing labour and importing cheap goods can mean that workers who produce those goods are not fairly paid. Those workers pay the real cost of cheap imports.

Labour Issues

Labour issues can range from workers fighting for a living wage and a degree of autonomy to the far other end with child labor and slave labor. When we don’t know the details, it’s easier to cover up the realities by calling this smart business, but you need to hear the details. The details will break your heart and change your shopping habits.

The Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) publishes a “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.” All products included on this list are documented to be made with child labor or forced labor. If you want to understand the consequences of worker exploitation in the name of cutting costs, skim this report.

Look at the labels on your child’s clothing. Are the clothes made in countries known to use slave labor or child labor? You will need to check in three places, because the list is broken down by different stages in the production cycle, such as agriculture or extraction (cotton), processing (textiles or fabric), and manufacturing (garments or clothing). In China, textiles can be produced by child labor, garments by forced labor, and cotton by both. In Egypt, cotton can be produced by child labor. In India, embroidered textiles can be produced by both, silk fabric and silk thread produced by child labor, and garments by both. In Pakistan, cotton can be produced by forced labor. Are your child’s clothes made in China, Egypt, India, or Pakistan?

It seems illogical that such labor abuses would be allowed, but you’ve probably heard the arguments for lowering costs by outsourcing. The global economic crisis contributes to this exploitation as companies look for ways to squeeze their costs and keep profits up. Desperate workers are exploited. Unfortunately, economic crisis also leads to cutting budgets for social protection mechanisms, so those who would normally prevent the exploitation do not. By raising public awareness, ILAB gives you the information you need to create pressure on manufacturers to stop exploitation.

The key is awareness—your awareness and my awareness as consumers.

Sometimes when we hear about working conditions in the factories where the products we buy are made, we are subject to a carefully controlled promotion of conditions—to propaganda. When we at ask hard-hitting questions about the China-made products that we carry, we hope that we are learning the truth. One benefit of buying closer to home is the trust we can build between producer and buyer. That trust relationship is interrupted or just broken when we import from factories we have not seen.

Product Focus: Candy

I am concerned that a lot of the countries where cloth diapers are being produced overseas then imported to North America are on the list of known labour abusers—China, Egypt, India, and Pakistan. I haven’t yet been able to trace any of these abuses through the supply chain, though, so I’m going to use a different product as an example of what can happen when we are not vigilant: candy.

This time of year, candy is likely on many parents’ minds. Think about this before you buy candy for Halloween. Over the past decade, the fact of slave labor and child labor in cocoa production in West Africa has been in the news consistently. Growing public awareness has meant pressure on mainstream chocolate producers to use only fair trade chocolate. Knowing that the dark side of cheap chocolate is child labour might make you hesitate to grab bags of miniature chocolate bars at the grocery store for treat-or-treaters.

Can you still buy ethical chocolate? Absolutely. There are quite a few small chocolate brands that use fair trade cocoa. In the mainstream, Cadbury and Nestle each produce one fair trade chocolate bar (for the UK market). Green & Blacks use only fair trade chocolate. Pressure on North American Hershey’s has intensified through sites like Raise the Bar Hershey. Just last week, Whole Foods dropped Hershey’s high-end chocolates because Hershey’s couldn’t assure them that the chocolate was free from slave-labour and child-labour.

The news for mainstream candy is not all bad. The same day their high-end chocolate was dumped by Whole Foods, Hershey’s announced their intention to source 100% certified cocoa by 2020. Their commitment is a step in the right direction. By the time your toddler is cruising the neighborhood alone on Halloween, you can pick up that bag of miniature chocolate bars and know that the cocoa your child will eat was not picked by another child forced into labour.

An Alternative: Fair Trade Candy

We don’t give our children a lot of sweets, but, when we do, we want to feel good about it. carries Glee Gum products, including the original chewing gum, which is Fairtrade certified, and their kits to make your own gum and make your own chocolate. We feel great about Glee Gum as a company. They are based in the U.S., and we love the educational materials they provide. When you buy Glee Gum, you are supporting a company that looks at the overall sustainability of the products.

Go-to Organizations

Many organizations are working internationally to reduce then eradicate labor abuse, to protect the most vulnerable people in our society. Among the organizations working on the larger issue of global labour abuse is the Worker Rights Consortium (worker focused). Global Exchange works on Fair Trade issues (product focused), educating the public to demand fair trade goods, including cocoa.

What You Can Do

Research the products you buy, share what you learn, and choose products wisely. Yes, it does sometimes cost more to buy Made in Canada and Made in USA goods, and, no, that is not always a guarantee of fair labour, but your choices and your voice do make a difference as you spread what you learn. Do a local search on Etsy. Buy at local craft shows and farmers’ markets. Learn the name of the person who made your stuff. Build that trust relationship. If you buy imported products, such as sweets like chocolate and gum, make sure they are fair trade certified.

One aspect of true, long-term sustainability must be a dignity and a living wage at every point along the supply chain. As long as we buy cheap products that externalize the real costs, we have not yet reached true sustainability.


More in this series

Image © Paul Prescott | Young textile worker in a small factory in Old Delh on February 26, 2008 in Delhi, India. Working age in this factory is from 16 to 71 years old.

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