The short answer: Yes.
It’s sad but true. Unless you’re either incredibly lucky (as in, winning-the-lottery lucky) or were brought up on a commune where everyone weaved their own pants out of the leftover hemp they couldn’t bake into happy sunshine brownies, you’ve bought more than a few things made by people forced to work for little or no money.
Most people are sort of vaguely aware of this. You probably assume that the conditions at factories producing, say, brand-name running shoes are not the best. (In 2001 Nike admitted it had been using sweatshops.) Same goes for electronics. (Apple was called out more recently for the conditions at the Foxconn plant that was producing its iPhones.) And you probably know that diamonds in parts of Africa are mined under deplorable conditions.
But the problem is probably much bigger than you think. A recent raid on a New Delhi sweatshop rescued 14 children who had been sold into forced labour. (Forced labour is a broad term that includes work imposed on someone against their will and with the threat of punishment. Slavery, prison work, and debt bondage are some examples.) What were they working on for 15 hours a day, under the constant threat of violence, to meet the demands of the western holiday market? Christmas decorations.
That’s the thing: Sometimes it’s the stuff you least expect. It’s ironic to think that before the wall fell, anti-communist dissidents in East German prisons were being forced to work for the world’s largest retailer of cheap furniture. (Ikea recently admitted that in the 1980s, it used labour from political prisoners in East Germany).
It’s tempting to think that this is a problem that only affects certain countries, and that if you could just avoid products from, say, India and East Germany, you’d be okay. That sounds reasonable. I mean, you’d have to boycott more countries. You might as well add China and Darfur. And then there was the UK family jailed this year for pulling homeless, alcoholic and mentally ill men and women off the street and forcing to work in their paving and patio business for $8 a day. They were beaten if they tried to leave. So you can cross Great Britain off your list. Walmart in July discontinued one of its seafood suppliers because it was forcing immigrant workers to work 16 to 24 hour shifts. They were warned their families in Mexico would be hurt if they sought legal help. That was in Louisianna. There goes the safety of ‘Made In USA’. Canada isn’t blameless, either, not by a long shot.
In fact, the United Nations’ International Labour Organization estimates that there are 21 million people trapped in some sort of forced labour worldwide, and that 1.5 million of them are in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Australia or New Zealand.
If you want to really get a sense of just how huge the problem is, point your browser to slaveryfootprint.org, a site commissioned by the U.S. State Department. It asks you a few questions about what’s in your home and then gives you an estimate of how many slaves work for you. It also points out the impact items that affected your score the most. (For me, it was socks and body wash.)
So which specific products should you stay away from? An infographic published in the National Post this year illustrates the problem: They list 130 product types from 71 countries that are produced by either slave labour or child labour. That’s product types, not products. As in ‘garments’ from Thailand or Argentina—but it doesn’t tell you which brands produce their clothes there. Or ‘cattle’ from Brazil or Paraguay. Which fast food companies import their beef from there? Does your favourite chocolate bar source its chestnuts from Bolivia?
It can all seem a little overwhelming. Free2Work (available in website and app formats) helps by grading brands on their labour and supply chain policies. As a consumer, that can be helpful. But it can also backfire: When every brand in the category ‘beans and grains’ gets a D-, it can leave you feeling a little powerless.
Still, it’s a place to start. It helps to know that Lindt chocolates get a slightly better grade than Glossette and Cadbury. (Thankfully, they’re more delicious, too.)
In the end, boycotting may not be the answer. “Anytime that you boycott a product,” Kevin Cassidy of the ILO told the National Post, “it impacts the local community that very well may be relying largely on that.” Instead, try writing letters and emails to your favourite companies demanding corporate policies that keep tabs on the labour practices throughout their supply chain.