From Sweaters to Hot Chocolate, Slavery Lurks in Holiday Shadows

But this season of giving could be one of the last to include the gifts of forced labor.

Uzbekistan forced labor cotton picking
Uzbek family-farmers weed beds of cotton at fields outside the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent. Each year, the government forces some two million children from their classrooms and into the fields to pick cotton. (Photo: Denis SinyakovAFP/Getty Images)
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

Parents in the industrial town of Angren in Uzbekistan were invited to a meeting with education officials at a local college last August. When the parents arrived, the administrators explained that their kids, ruddy 15- to 17-year-olds, were required to be involved in the central Asian dictatorship’s cotton harvest.

It was a duty not to be taken lightly.

The teenagers’ forced labor was presented as “an act of patriotism and love for homeland.” According to the Cotton Campaign, an effort to end forced and child labor in Uzbekistan, families were warned that “disagreement with this opinion would be considered as a sign of lack of consciousness.”

In the former Soviet Republic, saying no to the cotton harvest wasn’t a realistic option.

MORE: Slavery by Any Other Name Is Still a Global Scourge

Each fall, Uzbekistan, one of the world’s leading cotton exporters, herds some two million children from their classrooms and into the fields to pick cotton in order to meet production quotas, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, which has led the Cotton Campaign effort. That cotton is exported around the world. Some of it can even end up in clothes sold in shopping malls around America.

Despite a growing awareness of the presence of forced labor-tainted goods in the supply chains of many large corporations, consumers have few tools to help them make informed, forced-labor-free decisions this holiday shopping season.

“Certainly a lot of people are profiting from [human] trafficking. It remains a very high reward, low-risk business.”

“I can’t tell you which TVs to buy or which teddy bear to buy. The reality is that these companies are all in the same place,” Justin Dillon, the founder and chief executive of Slavery Footprint, tells TakePart. “They have no idea who even their first-tier suppliers are.”

Of the 21 million people estimated to be working in slavery or forced-labor conditions around the world, 18.7 million (90 percent) are exploited in the private economy, by individuals or enterprises, according to the International Labour Organization, a U.N. agency that monitors labor practices around the world. Of these, 14.2 million are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities, such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing. The rest are victims of forced sexual exploitation.

“Certainly a lot of people are profiting from [human] trafficking. It remains a very high reward, low-risk business,” Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, a non-governmental agency that combats forced labor, told TakePart in a recent interview.

“The more insidious form of slavery and forced labor that’s in the world is whenever you’re getting forced labor in the supply chain of various commodities.

“If you look at cocoa, if you look at stone products, if you look at garment products, there’s thousands upon thousands of people in forced labor in the supply chains of those products.”

According to Anti-Slavery International’s McQuade, there’s a “lack of interest” in the international business community to combat forced labor.

“To have an international business environment that is effectively anti-slavery would require some fundamental rethinking of some of the processes which are used by business today,” he says.  

Dillon, who has been working with corporations with Slavery Footprint to weed forced labor out of their supply chains, believes progress is in motion. “We’re already signing on businesses who want to” be free of forced labor in their products.

“We don’t have that slavery-free label yet,” he said. “But this year, consumers should buy something and communicate [that they want a slavery-free label] with that company.”

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