Fair Trade Isn't Enough: Our Unsolved Global Labor Rights Problem

It’s hard to argue that the global labor situation has significantly improved over the past decade.

More than a decade ago, Nike paid a huge price in reputation when it was caught selling sneakers made by children. In the past decade, most of us have come to believe those labor issues have been solved by auditors surveying factories and ensuring that the conditions are such that we can continue to by stuff with wanton abandon, without guilt.

And it’s true—at least in part. Today, we do have some better options than we used to have. One of them is “fair trade.”

Whether it’s chocolate, coffee or t-shirts, “fair trade” products have become a big business. They are certified by organizations like FairTradeUSA to ensure that agricultural commodities are grown while paying a premium to farmers and respecting environmental conditions. A handful of other companies divulge what they have done to solve labor problems in their supply chains.

Today, there are more than 10,000 Fair Trade Certified™ products on U.S. store shelves made by more than 800 partners. Sales of Fair Trade Certified products at mainstream grocery stores in the US grew by 87 percent in the second quarter of 2011. Total sales of Fair Trade goods in 2010 were $1.3 billion in the US and $5.8 billion globally.

But all that only gives us a false sense of comfort. Today, hundreds of millions of workers are still subject to treatment and conditions that would horrify you. There are 450 million wageworkers in agriculture worldwide, including more than one million in the US, most of whom are vulnerable undocumented immigrants. Whether forced labor conditions and modern forms of slavery, unpaid wages, sexual harassment or child labor, it’s hard to argue that the global labor situation has significantly improved over the past decade.

This became painfully apparent when I saw The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the monologue by Mike Daisey, at the Public Theater in New York. Daisey’s monologue has shifted the conversation around our love for electronics. They do magical things for us, and over time they get better and better. But what price is paid by the workers who make those shiny gadgets?

Daisey tells of his trip to Shenzhen, China, a major manufacturing center, where he posed as a wealthy businessman in order to infiltrate factories where Apple products and other electronics are made.

He witnessed inhumane conditions first-hand and interviewed workers outside of factories who said they were as young as 12. One factory he visited, owned by the Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn, employs some 430,000 people in its Shenzhen compound. The plant has 25 lunchrooms that each seat about 10,000 people. This scale of employment can be a good thing for China, a country with perhaps a hundred million young people entering the workforce each year. They work hard: While the official Chinese workday is 8 hours, the norm at Foxconn is closer to 12 and even longer when the introduction of a product is at hand.

Sometimes workers suffer serious problems as a result of their work. One worker died after a 34-hour shift. Because of the repetitive nature of the labor, workers hands often become deformed and useless within a decade, rendering them unemployable. Because so many workers have attempted suicide by jumping out windows or off the roof, netting has been installed to catch the falling bodies. And while Apple has expressed concern, without the support of the rest of the electronics industry, the nets represent a jarring sight.

Foxconn produces something approaching half of all the electronics purchased in the U.S.; these problems are clearly shared by Apple’s competitors as well.

We are so hungry to be distracted from the unfortunate and uncomfortable situation we’ve created for ourselves in China, as well as dozens of developing countries all over the planet. We seem much more focused on our own personnel health and safety than those who most need protection. Even when we focus on doing “good business,” it in no way relieves our responsibility for making sure we’re not supporting the worst aspects of our global marketplace.

If companies want to solve these problems, they can. To do so they need to take responsibility for measuring and improving working conditions. To start, they need to listen to the voices of workers directly. If you want to learn more, get involved and make a difference, visit Verite, the fair labor advocacy group, where, full disclosure, I serve on the board.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user jurvetson

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