8 Things You Didn’t Know Were Made with Sweatshop Labor

children's hands

Trade is essential for any economy—or community—to thrive, but not all trade is equal. Our globalized economy makes it easy for companies to use the cheapest labor they can find anywhere in the world, even through means of exploitation, while also making it harder for people to know anything about the conditions under which their goods were made. Together we can change that.

Tomatoes

Mexican farmworkers, and their children, are treated more like tools than people as they slave away in the hot sun harvesting tomatoes, eggplants, chile peppers, and other produce items bound for US supermarkets and restaurants. In a December 2014 expose, the LA Times documented the abysmal conditions under which Mexican farmworkers labor. Workers are promised good wages and free room and board, but in reality they are paid very little. Often their pay is withheld illegally until the end of their three-month contract, and in the meantime they have racked up debts at the over-priced company stores to pay for necessities. Workers live in cramped and filthy camps, sometimes infested with bedbugs or rats. Workers and their children, even infants, spend long days in the hot sun, often without access to drinking water. Adults and children are malnourished, sometimes surviving on just tortillas and watery soup. These workers are migrants, on the move from one harvesting region to the next, which means children are not able to be in school, creating an endless chain of poverty and hardship.

The US companies importing this produce, the farms, the labor camps, and the labor brokers who recruit workers from other regions to the farms all shirk responsibility, denying the problem or pointing the finger at another actor.

Worst concerns:

  • Poor health and safety
  • Child labor
  • Forced labor
  • Low Wages
  • No Right to Organize

Alternatives

For produce from Mexico, you can seek products that bear the Fair Trade label, which ensures certain labor standards are met and that the working conditions on the farms are inspected on an annual basis by a third-party.

Additionally, you can seek tomatoes from companies that have signed on to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Campaign. The experience of Mexican farmworkers is similar to what laborers have faced for years in Florida’s tomato fields . However, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has had some success in getting major brands to pay 1 penny more per pound of tomatoes they buy to bolster the farmworkers’ poverty-level wages, including Whole Foods, Taco Bell, McDonalds, and Burger King.

Take Action

If you enjoy tomatoes, eggplants, chile peppers, or products containing these ingredients, such as salsa from Mexico, you have an important role to play. US brands that import produce from Mexico need to know their consumers care about the conditions under which their favorite products are grown. Call the hotlines of your favorite restaurant and grocery chains asking questions and demanding fair treatment for workers.

On behalf of US tomato pickers, you can support the Coalition of Immokalee Worker’s latest campaigns targeting Wendy’s and Publix grocery stores.

Garments

The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza clothing factory in Bangladesh was the deadliest industrial disaster in modern history, killing 1,129 workers and injuring over 2,500 more. However, clothing manufacturing has been an exploitative industry long before 2013, all over the world. The global “race to the bottom”—in search of an ever-cheaper labor force—coupled with consumer demand for cheap and fast fashion, leaves garment workers paying the price. In some areas, it even leads to child labor, either because child work is less expensive, or because children may be forced to work in order to pay off a family debt. The US department of labor has found bonded child labor in Argentina and India and forced child labor in Thailand and Vietnam, where children may have been trafficked from Burma or Laos, or Vietnamese rural areas.

Garment workers face long hours; low pay; restricted freedom of movement (some may be locked in their factories day and night, posing a grave safety risk); exposure to toxic dyes or other chemicals; physical or sexual abuse; and inadequate food, water, and rest. In India, the Sumangali scheme, forbidden but still used, allows for adolescent girls to be sent to work in spinning mills or garment factories for three to five years to earn a dowry. During their contract, the girls live on factory compounds, work exhausting hours, and have little contact with the outside world. Many tire out before they ever earn the bonuses promised to them.

Additionally, Rana Plaza was not the only factory with structural safety issues. There have been deadly fires, explosions, and building collapses in garment factories around the world.

Worst concerns:

  • Poor health and safety
  • Child labor
  • Abusive management
  • Low wages

Alternatives

Luckily, there are many alternatives to sweatshop garments. Union-made is a great option. Fair trade companies, either certified by Fair Trade USA or members of the Fair Trade Federation, make products under healthy, just, and safe working conditions. Additionally, you can by locally produced clothing, second-hand, or even make your own.

Business in the National Green Pages® have been screened for their commitment to environmental and social responsibility.

Take Action

Clothing brands have begun to improve building safety in Bangladesh—nearly 200 have signed on to the legally binding Accord for Building and Fire Safety. However, some companies—namely Gap, Walmart, The Children᾿s Place—still refuse to sign on, so we᾿ve launched a petition to pressure these brands into doing so. Read more about our activism for garment workers in Bangladesh here (link to GAM Shareholder piece).

Additionally, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights leads a number of campaigns to support garment workers around the world.

Seafood

Thailand is the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, behind China and Norway. Every year, the Thai fishing fleet finds itself short by tens of thousands of hands, so human traffickers help boat captains fill that gap by kidnapping men from Thailand or luring men from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Cambodia onto boats with false promises.

Once aboard, the workers toil for years in horrific, extremely dangerous conditions, including 20-hour workdays, homogenous diets of scrap or “trash” fish, cramped quarters, and physical and mental abuse. Captains have been reported use methamphetamines to keep fishermen working and violence is common. Some never see land for years.

Only one in six Thai fishing boats is registered—the rest operate as a “ghost fleet”, coming into port and leaving without registering their presence or their workers with authorities.

In 2014, in response to pressure from NGOs including Green America, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to “tier 3,” or the worst level, in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. This downgrade sent a strong message to the Thai government to end the corruption that allows human trafficking to persist.

Recently, the Thai government proposed a scheme to supply prison laborers to fishing boats—a plan that would replace one vulnerable population (migrants) with another (prisoners) and would do nothing to prevent human rights abuses. In January 2015, Green America and our allies were quick to oppose this plan in the press, and the Thai government has stated it will not move forward.

The Thai government is not the only actor that bears responsibility for labor abuse in the country’s fishing sector. Global seafood companies profit tremendously from cheap labor and lax regulation in Thailand. In 2014, the Guardian connected the “trash fish” used to feed shrimp sold in Costco and Walmart to slave labor.

Learn more about Thailand’s “Ghost Fleet” in our Spring 2015 Green American Magazine.

Worst Concerns:

  • Forced labor
  • Abusive management
  • Disaster risk
  • Long hours

Alternatives

Over the past decade, global awareness of overfishing has grown, and in response, a number of standards and certification bodies have been developed to ensure the world doesn’t fish the ocean empty. However, there is still work to be done with seafood companies and certifiers to address human rights issues in production, not only environmental problems.

Here are some labels you are likely to encounter at the grocery store and what they mean:

Fair Trade USA is the first certification that addresses both environmental and labor issues with its standard for wild-capture fish from small-scale fisheries. Fair Trade Tuna from Indonesia will be available at Safeways in Northern California, Portland, and Seattle starting in March 2015.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

Standard for sustainable marine-caught fisheries.

Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)

Standard for sustainable fish farms

The MSC and ASC standards help ensure fish was caught or farmed in a sustainable way. These standards focus primarily on ecological issues, such as preventing overfishing, minimizing the environmental impact of a fishing operation, and monitoring waste water and genetic diversity. These standards do not focus on human rights issues; however, they do require certified partners to follow local labor laws. At present, neither MSC nor ASC has certified any fishing operation in Thailand.

Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP)

BAP certification focuses on the sustainability of fish farms, as well as hatcheries and processing facilities. The BAP standard includes provisions for both environmental and human rights issues. BAP has certified hundreds of fishing operations throughout Asia, Australia, the US and Mexico, and South America.

Take Action

Sign our petition demanding that Costco source from only sustainable and socially responsible fisheries and fish farms, and trace its shrimp down to the boat level, including the boats catching “trash-fish” used as feed on fish farms.

Cigarettes

The US is the fourth largest producer of tobacco worldwide, after China, Brazil, and India. 90 percent of tobacco sold in the US comes from North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Several hundred thousand children work on US farms, and most put in 50–60 hours per week, which is legal in the US, so long as the child is in school, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). While no data is available on the number of children working specifically on tobacco farms, these farms are among the most dangerous for child workers.

“Children working in tobacco farming…may use dangerous tools and machinery, lift heavy loads, and climb several stories without protection to hang tobacco in barns,” HRW stated in a May 2014 report, Tobacco’s Hidden Children: Hazardous Child Labor in US Tobacco Farming. Children also reported that tractors sprayed pesticides in nearby fields, making them vomit, feel dizzy, and have difficulty breathing and a burning sensation in their eyes.

Beyond the use of dangerous tools and exposure to toxic pesticides, children on tobacco farms may suffer from nicotine poisoning.

HRW interviewed roughly 150 children aged seven to seventeen for its report and found that 63 percent had had symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning such as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. In December, Altria, owner of Philip Morris and other large cigarette companies, announced its producers could no longer use workers under the age of 16; however, workers aged 16 and older still risk getting sick from nicotine and pesticide exposure.

Adult tobacco farm workers in the US earn poverty-level wages and face harassment, discrimination, and grave health risks from the chemicals sprayed on tobacco plants and long hours in the heat.

Worst concerns:

  • Poor health and safety
  • Child labor
  • Low wages
  • Long hours
  • No right to organize

Alternatives

None. While some smokers have turned to e-cigarettes as a lower-nicotine alternative, researchers from the University of Portland published a letter in the January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine stating that they found concentrations of carcinogenic formaldehyde in e-cigarette vapor at levels five to 15 times higher than in regular cigarettes. While more study is needed to confirm these findings, they do indicate that e-cigarettes may not be less toxic. People who live in tobacco-growing regions can make a point of supporting local organic farms to help farmers transition to a profitable, and less toxic, crop.

Take Action

Join Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s campaign to push Reynolds American to respect migrant workers’ rights in the tobacco fields in North Carolina.

Sign Human Rights Watch’s letter to ten tobacco company CEOs demanding that they end child labor on US tobacco farms.

Conflict Minerals

Conflict minerals include tantalum, tin, tungsten, platinum, and gold. They’re so-called because their sale helps fund wars.

Globally, mining is very dangerous, with risk of injury from heavy equipment, landslides, or getting trapped in a mine.

The mines of eastern Congo are even deadlier because of ongoing conflict there that has led to 5.4 million deaths to date. This warfare is predominantly funded by the illicit sale of metals mined in the Congo, smuggled out through neighboring countries, and ultimately used in electronic devices. Congolese miners often do not work voluntarily and live in very poor conditions. The US Department of Labor also reports that children in the Congo have been abducted and forced to work in these mines.

Worst concerns:

  • Poor health and safety
  • Child labor
  • Forced labor
  • Disaster Risk

Alternatives

Electronics: When you need to replace your electronics, buy used. If you need to buy new, consult the Enough Project’s electronics rankings, which are based on the companies’ use of conflict minerals. Its latest rankings named Intel and HP as industry leaders.

Jewelry: When buying gold jewelry, choose secondhand, vintage, or recycled pieces, or look for conflict-free gold. Additionally, you may be able to find Fair Trade gold in some countries.

The Responsible Jewellery Council certifies gold and platinum-group minerals (platinum, palladium, and rhodium) as being conflict free and responsibly sourced throughout the supply chain.

You can also consult the “Jewelry” category of Green America’s National Green Pages® to find green and fair trade jewelry companies that offer non-gold jewelry or use recycled or conflict-free gold.

Take Action

The Enough Project’s Raise Hope for Congo Campaign shares tools to push your school, municipality, or favorite brands to go conflict-free.

Wine and Grapes

Nearly all of the table grapes grown in the US, and 90 percent of the wine sold here, come from grapes grown in California. Here, farmworkers—mainly immigrants or migrant workers from Latin America—conduct backbreaking labor, hand-harvesting grapes in extreme heat and cold. They work long hours, are exposed to the hot sun and pesticides, and are often not properly hydrated.

Despite Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s historic grape strike and boycott in the early 1960s, Latino workers continue to struggle for decent wages and workplace protections. Many workers in the California grape fields are undocumented and fear speaking out about poor conditions. As a result, they earn far less than the minimum wage, roughly just $5/hour, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. One worker estimated she earned 1 to 5 cents for a bushel of grapes sold in the grocery store for $1.40. “Federal law has never covered farmworkers,” writes photojournalist David Bacon, author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (Beacon Press, 2013), in a January article on California grape pickers for Al Jazeera America. “Only a tiny percentage of the nation’s farmworkers have union contracts, and wages and conditions in farm labor are worse than in almost any other occupation.” An ever-increasing amount of grapes are being machine-harvested, but where labor is available cheaply, handpicking is still used, as machines can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In South Africa, Human Rights Watch has documented unfit living conditions, pesticide exposure, no access to water or toilets while working, and union blocking on vineyards in its report Ripe with Abuse.

Worst Concerns:

  • Poor health and safety
  • Low wages
  • No right to organize

Alternatives

For imported wines, choose Fair trade options. Fair trade ensures that workers labor in safe and healthy conditions and earn a living wage.The Triton Collection imports and distributes fair trade wines, and lists retailers where you can find them in your area.

Look for wine from local and unionized wineries. Local vintners can often tell you exactly who harvests their grapes. If it’s migrant workers, consider talking to some of them about their working conditions, and offer a helping hand if they’re not being treated fairly.Chateau St. Michelle in Washington State is a unionized winery, and Frey Vineyards, organic winemaker in Redwood Valley, CA, employs 20 people full-time, including vineyard workers, all of whom earn a living wage and receive health care, maternity leave, and paid vacation.

Take Action

United Farm Workers of America (UFW) works to improve conditions for farmworkers in 10 states on issues related to pesticide use and exposure, heat exposure, fair pay, and more. You can support their campaigns and also look for products grown on farms under UFW contract.

Sugar

Central America supplies 23 percent of US sugarcane. For the past 20 years, tens of thousands of men working on Central American sugarcane plantations have died from Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). While the exact cause of the epidemic is yet to be identified, a study released in February 2015 by researchers from Boston University linked the disease to the sugarcane workers’ jobs. Many of the workers themselves told National Public Radio that they blame the farm chemicals they’re exposed to.

What Central American sugarcane workers have in common, besides CKD, are the conditions they face: exhausting manual labor, working in hot conditions without enough water, and exposure to pesticides.

While the US does not import sugar from Myanmar (formerly Burma), the US State Department reports that children often labor in the country’s sugarcane fields. The same is true in Bolivia, where the DOL estimates that 25 percent of those working in sugarcane are under age 14. Some are forced to work to pay off debts of their parents who have passed away or are unable to work.

Worst concerns:

  • Poor health and safety
  • Long hours

Alternatives

Buy fair trade cane sugar. Fair trade ensures that workers labor in safe and healthy conditions and no child labor was used.

Choosing sugarcane also ensures that the sugar you are eating is not genetically engineered. Approximately half of sugar sold in the US comes from sugar beets, around 95 percent of which are genetically engineered. Sugarcane is not genetically modified at present and fair trade standards also prevent genetic engineering.

Take Action

Fair Food International campaigns to improve occupational health and safety among sugarcane farmers in Nicaragua.

Toys

Hundreds of thousands of young Chinese migrant workers toil away in factories making toys for major international brands. A recent report by China Labor Watch (CLW) exposed dozens of violations in four factories that make toys for Mattel, Fischer-Price, Disney, Crayola, and others. Violations included unpaid wages, lack of safety training, excessive overtime, poor living conditions, environmental pollution, and lack of fire safety.

Like electronics, toy manufacturing can also be very chemically intensive, requiring various hazardous inks, solvents, paints and phthalates (used in plastics). While potentially dangerous for consumers, these chemicals are even more dangerous for workers who are exposed on a regular basis in higher concentrations, often without safety training or protective equipment, as found by CLW. Additionally, the management in these factories can be very abusive. A worker named Hu Nianzhen killed herself in November 2014 after working at a Mattel factory for two years because of the demanding conditions of her work and the verbal abuse and threats from her superiors.

Worst concerns:

  • Poor health and safety
  • Abusive management
  • Low wages
  • Long wages

Alternatives

When purchasing new toys, buy from green and fair trade companies in Green America’s Green Business Network®. You can also find some of Green America’s favorite green toy choices of 2014.

Take Action

Sign China Labor Watch’s Change.org petition to Mattel asking it to address sweatshop conditions in its supplier factories.

Sign Stop Toying Around’s letter to Mattel demanding that the company “immediately take measures to prevent any further suicides, to reduce moral and physical pressure on the workers, and to improve the working conditions.”

From Green American Magazine Issue