This Easter I decided to do #SlaveFreeLent. As many of you know, I’m a bit of an ethical fashion geek, especially about stopping slavery in fashion. Last month I felt challenged to look more at the risk of slavery in other products I buy.
Each week I researched and abstained from each different product most ‘at risk’ of being produced by forced labour. The money I would otherwise have spent was donated to International Justice Mission, an international charity rescuing slaves, prosecuting traffickers and training communities how to stop slavery.
This is what I learnt.
Much of the chocolate we buy is made by child labour. 20 years ago chocolate companies pledged to eradicate child labour, but it persists on many cocoa farms.
Acute poverty makes it easy to entice children into working on cocoa farms with promises of good pay. But when they arrive, they are unable to leave and forced to work without pay. They are whipped or beaten if they try to escape or for working too slowly.
Some major chocolate manufacturers claim there isn’t any slavery, while others admit that child labour is involved but deny any responsibility. Whenever there is a move by government to tackle the problem, the big chocolate companies lobby against it, and so slavery persists.
Big chocolate companies also encourage farmers to clear more forests so they can produce more cocoa and palm oil. This not only impacts wildlife and the absorption of carbon, it also drives down the price of cocoa. This has resulted in a massive increase in poverty, huge debts and increased child labour. Farmers now earn less than £1.60 a day.
The biggest buyers of West African cocoa are Hershey’s, Mars and Nestle.
There are reports of journalists being threatened when revealing government corruption in the cocoa industry. A journalist was reportedly kidnapped and killed in 2004. Three journalists were imprisoned in 2010.
To buy slave free chocolate, check out the list of ethical chocolate companies and certificates to look out for at Slave Free Choc
The UK imports more fast fashion per capita than any other country.
Fast fashion has to move quickly and respond to trends. It also has to be cheap. High Street brands and ‘bargain’ online stores put a lot of pressure on the factories supplying them to make clothes at unreasonably low costs whenever they demand it. None of the big fashion brands pay up front. They expect factories to bear the brunt of costs. Many fashion brands have cancelled orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, without reimbursing the factories. Only a few have been persuaded to honour the orders so that factories are not left in debt.
Few fashion supply chains are slave free. Forced labour is present at every stage of the process of creating our clothes:
Cotton growing: 9 out of the top 10 countries producing cotton use forced or child labour.
Ginning: children from the age of 5 are forced to work in ginning factories, extracting petals and seeds from cotton, for little or no pay.
Spinning: in Tamil Nadu young girls are encouraged to work in spinning mills and promised a lump sum for a dowry at the end of 3 years. The scheme is illegal so traffickers target dalits in poor, rural communtities. The girls work 12 hours a day, without a break, 6 or 7 days a week. Overtime is compulsory. Living conditions are squalid and many become ill from the cotton dust. Two thirds never receive the money promised to them. 60% of workers in spinning mills in India are under 18. 10-20% are under 14.
Weaving: workers are tempted to Malaysia with promises of high salaries in weaving mills but have to pay three times the expected salary in recruitment fees. 20-30% of the Malaysian workforce are migrants. Recruiters compound interest on the fee, making it impossible to pay it back and hold onto workers’ passports until the fee is paid.
Knitting: 8,000 – 10,000 child workers are estimated to work in the knitwear town of Tiripur.
Embellishing: sequin or Zari work is the biggest employer of child labour. Sweatshop workers claim children are needed because their thin, nimble fingers work quicker on intricate designs, but this is untrue. By the time they reach mid-teens, their fingers and hands are often badly damaged. It is estimated 100,000 children work over 14 hours a day in illegal sweatshops in and around Delhi.
Manufacturing: many aspects of making are subcontracted by factories to meet the low costs required. Children may be used to embroider, trim threads or other repetitive work. The 2019 Tailored Wages Report found that none of the major brands pay garment workers enough to live on.
Find out more:
True Cost movie an important introduction to what really happens in the fashion industry
Fashion Revolution for key campaigns to change the fashion industry
There’s a growing number of ethical fashion brands, but many struggle because people are unwilling to pay a fair price for their clothes. If you have a small budget, buy quality clothing secondhand and save your pennies up to invest in an ethical outfit that you will treasure for years to come. For some great ethical fashion brands, check out the Ethical Fashion Directory at Ethical Rebel
Coffee is the most popular drink in the UK and the number of slaves producing it is rising.
It is particularly rampant in Brazil, which produces more than a third of the world’s coffee and earns billions from its exports of coffee to the West: $18 billion in 2018 .
Brazil has over 119,000 coffee plantations and hundreds of thousands of workers, but only 245 inspectors. The number of inspectors was cut in 2017, further undermining their ability to check for and rescue slaves.
In 2019 Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stated that child labour was not harmful and complained that the legal definition of slave labour in Brazil was too broad.
Corruption in Brazil is so rampant that farms simply stamp their product as slave free to command a higher price, regardless of whether slaves are used. The Rainforest Alliance is working on increasing the number of unannounced visits to check for signs of slavery after a number of their certified coffee farms have been found to use slaves.
Check out Ethical Consumers Coffee Guide for ethical coffee brands and brands to avoid.
The UK is the biggest importer of prawns, mainly from Thailand, where there is a significant risk that the fishermen are slaves and have been trafficked.
The Thai fishing industry employs tens of thousands of fishermen and has an income of $7 billion dollars. Almost 40% of migrant workers are trafficked. 6% have seen someone murdered on the boat in front of them and 36% reported violent working conditions. Similar conditions are experienced on Thai tuna fishing boats.
A slave, recently rescued by International Justice Mission, didn’t discover he was a slave until he was out at sea. “Some workers were pushed over the boat … At one point I saw a corpse. It was someone I knew.”
Unfortunately, the costs of seeking out and boarding fishing boats to check for slaves is high, meaning there is currently no reliable certificate to verify that seafood is slave free.
When buying seafood, check where it comes from to ascertain the risk of slaves being used to catch it. I have not been able to find a slave free guide to buying seafood, but you can check Ethical Consumer’s Tuna Guide to give you an idea of how brands are performing. The best fish to buy is locally caught with proof of net-to-plate traceability, like those featured in the Cornwall Good Seafood Guide
Lithium batteries for smartphones and laptops
Cobalt is used to power rechargeable lithium batteries in gadgets such as smartphones, computers and electric cars.
60% of all cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo where 40,000 child miners are estimated to work.
Journalists have come across children as young as 4 years old woking at the mines. They are paid by the sack and earn less than enough to feed themselves. It can take an entire day to fill a sack, for which Chinese traders may pay about 50p. The children do not know the value of the cobalt they collect and have to accept whatever the traders pay them.
Gloves and masks are not provided, despite warnings from the World Health Organisation that cobalt dust can cause long-term health problems.
Cobalt miners dig tunnels by hand and have no protective equipment. The tunnels have no supports and frequently collapse, especially in the rain.
Apple, Google, Tesla and Microsoft were recently named in a lawsuit seeking damages over the deaths and injuries of child miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The court papers gave several examples of child miners buried alive or suffering from injuries after tunnel collapse.
Chinese traders buy most of the cobalt. They don’t check where the cobalt comes from or who has worked to extract it. They just want cheap cobalt. They mainly sell to Congo Dongfang International, a subsidiary of Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, which supplies most of the world’s largest battery makers.
Amnesty has claimed that Apple, Samsung and Sony, among others, have failed to do basic checks to ensure the mines used to supply their cobalt do not use children.
Shockingly, there are no ethical laptops available at this time. In the Ethical Consumer Laptop Guide all brands have a poor ethical rating, though some are worse than others. The most ethical choice is to buy secondhand or refurbished.
There appears to be no ethical electric car. All electric cars in Ethical Consumer’s Electric Car Guide failed to ensure that child miners are not used.
If you are concerned whether any brand you buy from may have slaves in their supply chain, check their website and find out what information they provide about their supply chain. Large companies are required to make a Modern Day Slavery Statement, to identify the risks of slaves making their products and to take proactive action to mitigate any risks of slavery.
You can also write to them. Many large companies will reply with a generic global statement. Don’t be fobbed off by this. Write to them again and make sure they are providing a detailed and convincing account of the precautions they take.
“Nothing happens just because we are aware of modern slavery, but nothing can happen until we are” International Justice Mission
Share, share and share again. One of the most powerful forms of activism is simply telling people what’s going on. Chat with your friends, work colleagues and people you meet. Post on social media. It all counts.
Business relies on reputation. The more people know the truth and voice their concerns about slaves making our stuff, the quicker they’ll act to sort it out.