Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Enjoying the Benefits of Slavery and Child Labor Without the Guilt

Forbes has a good article on the problem of child labor. American consumers addicted to cheap imported goods buy many products that were made by child labor. Young children may be working 14 hours a day for brutal masters to crank out those stylish jeans you are wearing or to produce the cotton your shirt is made from or to harvest the bananas I enjoy. In addition to rampant child labor on a global scale (over 200 million child laborers! - virtually the backbone of our "global economy"), there are cases where other forms of forced labor may be used to produce the low-cost goods we import.

We have outsourced the slave plantations of the past. We are exchanging American jobs for compulsory labor elsewhere. Such a deal. Now we can enjoy the benefits of child labor and slave labor without the guilt. Do we have a moral obligation to respond? Should we screen what we purchase and avoid giving financial support to those who benefit from modern forms of slavery, whether it is child labor or labor camps?

I think so, but it is a difficult task, akin to the increasingly difficult task of buying "made in America" products. Some patriotic Americans buy American-brand vehicles instead of "foreign made" Toyotas, not realizing that the Toyota may be much more "made-in-America" than the car they bought instead (I drive a Camry). Or they may buy products with a "made in USA" label that were almost entirely the result of labor in foreign countries, with a final touch or two added in the US to barely qualify for the label.

The other day I saw some frozen salmon I almost bought. The packaging indicated that the fish was caught by "vessels flying the US flag" off the coast of Alaska, and that it was being sold by a US company (Beaver Street Fisheries in Florida, as I recall). Most of the fish being sold in American grocery stores these days comes from Asia, and there are some reasons to be concerned about imported fish, especially Asian farm-raised fish. So I picked up a few packs of this frozen salmon and almost bought it - until I saw one more little line on the back of the package indicating that it was a product of a foreign country. Hmmm, wonder if the US flags were fakes? Deceptive packaging.

Should we care at all where our products come from and what kind of labor was involved? Perhaps in some cases, but it is a difficult and discouraging task to sort things out. Forbes offers a slideshow with some tips for consumers, but I would prefer action taken at a Federal level to put up more serous barriers to the import of goods based on exploitation of children, political prisoners, slaves, etc. But not until I've finished my Christmas shopping for this year.

17 comments:

Kurt Manwaring said...

The issue of modern slavery in America is something that I think isn't very well known. A book I'm reading in my Sociology of Migration course at the University of Utah states that this type of thing isn't located on our "cognitive maps."

It's an absolutely horrible practice that has long been a trend in certain areas of the U.S. To have adequate intervention by the federal government would be ideal, but it doesn't seem we're anywhere close to making that a reality.

I think in order for there to be a significant change there's going to be much more than good federal involvement. Americans are likely going to have to make a universal committment to lay aside some of our capitalist theology and be willing to pay a little more for most things; and a lot more for some things.

~ Kurt Manwaring ~

East of Eden said...

We have a farmer's market in our town during the summer. I've grown very fond of buying local food and developing relationships with the farmers in our area. The quality of the food I buy is also excellent as well.

If you ever have the chance, the PBS documentary "To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig" featurures the farmers from the Santa Fe, NM farmer's market (my area) and markets in several other areas in the country.

I know it's hard to find "Made in the USA" products, or to buy locally grown food, but there is a growning demand and if more consumers demand these things, the markets will increase.

RWW said...

In addition to rampant child labor on a global scale... there are cases where other forms of forced labor may be used...

I object to the automatic equation of child labor with forced labor, and I proudly support companies that use the former (if it's not forced).

Susan M said...

Someone should compile information like this about companies and put it online in a searchable database.

My husband's company makes snowboards in the US and it is very difficult for them to compete with all the other companies that have moved their factories to China.

Connor said...

Jeff,

Interesting post - it's working my mental gears this morning. I'm leaning towards the idea that child labor isn't necessarily bad - it's the forced child labor that should be punished. Or, by corollary, all those government actions that have created an environment where child labor has increased and been capitalized.

Here's a good article I recommend on the subject of child labor laws:

http://www.mises.org/story/2858

Shawna said...

"...but I would prefer action taken at a Federal level to put up more serous barriers to the import of goods based on exploitation of children, political prisoners, slaves, etc."

But that would put Wal-Mart out of business!!

mikecallaghan said...

As some here have suggested, we need to draw a distinction between voluntary and involuntary labor. If it's the former, we need to be careful about how offended we become. As Thomas Sowell put it in a 2004 article:

Those who vent their moral indignation over low pay for Third World workers employed by multinational companies ignore the plain fact that these workers' employers are usually supplying them with better opportunities than they had before, while those who are morally indignant on their behalf are providing them with nothing.

Mormanity said...

The objection RWW raised has merit. I should clarify that I am referring to child labor that is compulsory and threatens the welfare of the child. Helping with a family business is one thing, being sent away from home to be a serf to a brutal master is another. And it can be hard to draw the line in some cases.

I'll clarify my wording.

Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that that "States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." That seems reasonable, perhaps. (Quote taken from Wikipedia's article on Child Labor.)

ginger said...

I don't agree with forced labor, but I don't understand why people are against buying products made in other countries. A global economy is good for the people whose standard of living is raised in these other countries.

Is it better for people in other countries to live in poverty so that we can say we bought American?

mikecallaghan said...

(This is a light-hearted but true comment, so please take it as such).

Speaking of child labor, last summer I paid my 11 year old $10/hour to do some web coding for my software company. This is work that would cost me at least $40-50/hour if I had to go hire a "real" developer. He was happy to do it, raised some money for scout camp this year, and by the end of the project was writing simple database queries on his own. He's 12 now and is working on the creation of a virtual-trading-card-based racing game.

I'm thankful to be blessed to live in a country where our standard of living is such that I can make such choices. Wow, we've strayed a bit from LDS blogging on this post, eh? :)

Ryan said...

I don't understand why people are against buying products made in other countries. A global economy is good for the people whose standard of living is raised in these other countries.

Is it better for people in other countries to live in poverty so that we can say we bought American?


The issue is not buying foreign-made goods per se. The problem is that, all too often, these foreign-made goods turn out to be made of low quality materials by exploited workers in a way that damages the environment, covered up by blatant lies, and sold at prices that undercut those who who follow the rules (though not always all those things at once).

At least here we have controls and some semblance of enforcement. In many countries the controls are completely missing or their enforcement is so corrupted that they may as well not exist.

I don't think many Americans realize just how deeply corruption is ingrained in the cultures of many countries. We're talking about government officials who will lie to you with a straight face, even though the evidence discredits them and they know you know that they're lying. Police officers who will arrest you on spurious charges, then let you go if you don't have cash on you because they know their boss would get the bribe money instead of them once you reached the station. (Both examples told to me by people who experienced it personally).

Disclaimer: I don't think U.S. business or politics are "clean" by any stretch, but they're a start, at least.

RWW said...

...right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education...

How about the right of the child and parents to decide these matter for themselves? Interfere with education? Anyone who takes a job before earning a PhD is placing work before their education, and in most cases that is the best thing to do, even at an early age.


The problem is that, all too often, these foreign-made goods turn out to be made of low quality materials by exploited workers...

For many products, I prefer those of low-quality materials.

The word "exploited" gets thrown around a lot in anti-trade arguments; what exactly do you have in mind? When I hear the word, I usually don't assume a negative connotation, but in this case I suppose it was meant to have one.

jenny vorwaller said...

you made the first step by not eating salmon this week, :)

ginger said...

I agree with you to a certain extent Ryan, but I would rather by cheap, badly made products, than see children forced into prostitution because their families can't afford to keep them (this happens in India with disturbing frequency.)

My husband works with people in China... many of whom are members of the Communist party because they have to be. But the strides the country is making are amazing. The stories he has told me about the lives of these people, who were in jail twenty years ago for their capitalist tendencies, and are now major players in bringing capitalism to the country, are amazing.

The country has miles to go, I am not ignorant of that. I just think people should look at long term effects of a world economy before they dismiss it out of hand.

Mormanity said...

RWW - you point out the dangerously vague language that the UN uses. In the hands of attorneys, I suppose it could apply to sending a child to early morning seminary or giving chores. I should not have relied on UN lingo. But I do think there is a point to having child labor laws to avoid the truly abusive situations that have harmed the lives of many children.

In the US, though, a little child labor might do a lot of good for some of the kids I see with way too much time on their hands and far too little supervision.

captain moroni said...

I completely agree with you that we should take action against slavery and child labor. However, I do not appreciate your rhetoric about "made in America" products. I do not understand why American jobs should be valued over non-american jobs. This smacks of 1920s isolationism and the "America First" movement. Perhaps you are familiar with the philosophy of utilitarianism. It states that we must do the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. But, we must also take into account that helping the poorest segments of society is better than helping the richest segments of society. Think about it. You give a 100 dollars to a guy in Africa. He starts a business and helps lift his family out of poverty. You give 100 dollars to Bill Gates, and well, who cares? We should worry about the poorest segments of society first. Considering this, why are we so concerned with helping the businesses of the richest nation in the world? The wage of the poverty line in the United States is still 15 times larger then the average wage in Yemen. God loves all his children equally, so why must we worry about Americans first? Jesus would not be so nationalistic and isolationist. He would help other nations. While on the subject, I would like to talk about illegal immigration. I do believe that we should have border security and some qualifications for immigrants to come into America. But why should we have caps on immigration? Only 1.5 million immigrants are allowed into the US every year from Mexico. Even though many are very qualified to be a US citizen. The reason many resort to illegal immigration is because of the racist fear that Mexicans have less right then Americans to live, work and grow in the richest nation in the world. What if the Mexican government had had such caps in 1847? They would have been able to kick out the Mormons. Remember, Brigham Young technically did illegally immigrate to Utah. Another interesting example of the injustice of caps is that of Iraqi interpreters. These interpreters help the United States army in Iraq. However, they are hated by their country men and are constantly in danger of being kidnapped and killed. Yet, the caps stop these Iraqis from coming into America. Out of 1800 qualified Iraqi interpreters, the caps only allowed 500 to immigrate into the United States. Many of the rest have been killed. These are men that sacrificed their lives for America and we still refuse to let them come here because of our racist, isolationist fears. We should get rid of these caps. They are not what God wanted for the promised land.

Global said...

I agree that child labor, or forced labor of any type (except that imposed as punishment for lawbreaking), is troubling. However, I do not think an easy solution exists, and fear that a federal solution would increasee the cost of all imports and quickly become a cover for protectionist economic policy. I think private solutions, such as your decision not to purchase the salmon, are far superior to general government actions. Morality requires agency.

The throw away line at the end of the post speaks volumes. In effect, you are calling for a government solution to bind your neighbors when you are not willing to enforce a private solution on yourself. This seems like a species of inchoate tryanny.