In September 2009, United States Department of Labor issued a long-awaited report identifying more than 100 goods produced by child or forced labor in more than 50 countries around the world. Advocates applauded the release, seeing it as a tool for consumers who want to purchase products that are free from forced and child labor.
According to the International Labor Organization, extreme poverty compels more than 200 million children to perform child labor around the world.
“Most Americans and most consumers in the world market would not choose to purchase goods known to be produced by exploited children or forced laborers—at any price,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in a foreword to the DOL report, which was produced by DOL’s Bureau of International Affairs Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking.
Read an NCL-authored report on trafficking, The Unrestricted Highway: A Report on State Efforts to Identify and Combat Human Trafficking in the United States
Read NCL's comments, submitted to DOL regarding the list of tainted goods, back in 2007
Of the 122 goods indentified in the report, the majority are in agriculture, an industry in which, globally, seven in 10 working children toil. Many of the most common agricultural products end up in the homes of American consumers, including cotton, sugar, tobacco, coffee, rice, and cocoa.
“Manufactured goods” (including clothing, footwear, and carpets) and “mined or quarried goods”—bricks, coal, gold, and minerals such as coltan used in electronics —follow as the next two leading categories of child labor.
For 20 years, NCL has coordinated the Child Labor Coalition (CLC), a group of 20-plus organizations committed to reducing exploitative child labor and child trafficking. The CLC and its members are working to decrease child labor in many of the products and countries cited in the report including cotton in Uzbekistan, cocoa in West Africa, rubber in Liberia, and shrimp in South Asia.
Mandated by language in the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Acts of 2005 and 2008, the report is is charged with examining foreign child labor; however, it briefly notes that the United States is not without child labor problems. DOL’s Wage and Hour Division found 4,734 minors illegally employed in fiscal year 2008. In 40 percent of the child labor violations cited, children were working in hazardous conditions or using equipment deemed too dangerous for minors to use.
“Hundreds of thousand of children are allowed to work in American agriculture on non-family farms at very young ages because of loopholes in U.S. child labor law,” said Reid Maki, NCL’s Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards. “Many of these child farm workers are only 12 and 13 years old, and they work because they are from poor families. We should clean up our own child labor problems if we are going to ask other countries to stop the exploitation of child workers.”
Enhanced enforcement efforts at DOL have begun to address concerns about very young children working in agriculture. Earlier this year, DOL fined five North Carolina blueberry growers for employing minors under the legal age.
“We’re encouraged by expanding enforcement efforts, and this list is a great starting point for consumers, companies, and government officials to devise strategies to reduce child and forced labor in specific products,” said Greenberg. “As the report points out, ‘When problems are known and understood, they can be addressed’.”