Quick-Takes: Ending Slave Labor

America Sets Global Standard by Its Treatment of Slave Labor

    President Obama’s recent decision to approve a law banning any products made by slavery or forced labor is an important milestone in fighting the abuse of human rights. By refusing to import certain goods, the U.S. is sending a clear message that we do not support slave labor, even in industries and countries outside of direct U.S. jurisdiction. One target of this bill is the Thai seafood industry which, as reported by the New York Times, is one of the last remaining bastions of modern-day slavery. Workers on Thai seafood ships reported constant beatings, punishments and beheadings onboard flimsy ships with little protection from the elements. Given these appalling conditions, we should not support this industry by buying its goods.

    Furthermore, the new law is an important step forward from its predecessor which, according to AP News, allowed Customs and Border Protection to permit slave-labor goods so long as there was not “sufficient supply to meet domestic demand.” Now that this loophole is closed, free-market forces will likely increase supply from industries which do not use such horrible labor. Although preventing this tainted supply from entering U.S. markets will possibly be detrimental in the short term, we will eventually find or create new producers which offer ethically produced goods.

     In addition, by closing U.S. markets to slave-labor goods, other countries and governments will begin to clean up their act and stop forced labor that was previously overlooked. The Thai government has already begun to crack down on human trafficking after international pressure, according to the BBC. This is a step forward and a promising step toward ending human trafficking across the world.

 — Nathan Walker   Staff Writer

Poor Workers Will Struggle to Find New Income Source After Labor Ban

Obama signed an act this month banning the imports of all goods into America that were produced with forced labor. Although resulting from good intentions, this act was an ineffective move from the U.S. because it fails to educate and mobilize workers.

The Guardian writes that the most effective way to stop slave labor without hurting the workers — the most vulnerable people in this equation — is to leverage the situation from both sides. There must be a simultaneous effort to stop the demand of products made from slave labor while also empowering workers to demand better treatment.

Here’s the big problem that Obama’s act missed. It only regulates trade. In no way does it legally require companies to pay their workers more or give them more rights, nor does it encourage the creation of programs teaching workers about their rights. Educating workers to fight for their rights is a crucial part of this equation as it promotes better working conditions while allowing workers to keep their incomes. When companies can’t pay everyone the new legal wage and aren’t legally required to, then they fire workers, resulting in a loss of income for an impoverished working class that has no means of getting it back. 

The International Labour Organization reports that forced labor has been condemned internationally since 1930, yet 20.9 million people today are slave workers. Many workers aren’t aware that these conditions are illegal, and thus don’t know that they can advocate for themselves. International laws to ban slave labor have existed for some time, but without factoring in the human element into these laws, we are going to retain the same results.

 — AYAT AMIN   Senior Staff Writer

Bill Does Not Address Widespread Slave Labor Practiced in U.S. Prisons

Condemning slave labor seems like an easy decision, even easier when it points the finger everywhere but your own country. The Bureau of International Labor Affairs compiled a list of 353 specific goods from specific countries that it deems rife with problematic working conditions. This list could have served as an example of economic responsibility, if not for the fact that the U.S. profits off labor of more incarcerated people — disproportionately people of color — than any other polity on the planet.

Senator Ron Wyden said he sponsored the bill because any products “made by people held against their will” should have no place among U.S. imports. Evidently, this moral standard does not apply to products made domestically. Prisons serve as one of the largest employers in the U.S. and make over $37 billion in revenue.

We currently have over two million incarcerated laborers who are disproportionately people of color. Many are locked up for nonviolent crimes and paid a few dollars for a full day’s worth of labor making products without insurance, labor unions or benefits. The 13th Amendment, which ostensibly abolished slavery, specifically notes that it may still occur as punishment for a crime. This clause built our current prison-industrial complex and contradicts our international stance against slave labor.

Of course, in principle the U.S. should not support forced labor abroad, but it seems a lot easier to give up garments from Brazil or Christmas decorations from China than turn our righteous indignation on ourselves and abolish a booming prison complex built off the coerced labor of Americans held against their will. The bill’s good intentions get lost behind glaring hypocrisy.

 — THOMAS FINN   Senior Staff Writer