We Can Fight Modern Slavery
Susan Ariel Aaronson
February 09, 2007
Susan Ariel Aaronson teaches at the George Washington University School of Business and is the author (with Jamie Zimmerman) of Trade Imbalance: The Struggle to Weigh Human Rights Concerns in Trade Policymaking.
Two hundred years ago , both the United States and Great Britain banned trade in slaves. But that was not the end of slavery: Britons and Americans alike were complicit in an economy built on slaves up until the Civil War. Today, even as many of us look back on that history in revulsion, modern-day Americans are still complicit in slavery. We buy a wide range of goods, from chocolate to cars, that include ingredients or components from the hands of forced or even slave labor. We also invest in companies that—often unintentionally—perpetuate slavery.
Bloomberg News reported in November 2006, for example, that many companies, including Toyota, GM and Frigidaire use materials that start with slave labor in Brazil.
Americans tend to respond to these reports by calling on banning trade in such goods. But a trade ban cannot address the root causes—the conditions in Brazil and other countries that perpetuate slavery.
However, two members of Congress have illuminated how the U.S. might use its market power to address the root causes of slavery. In 2001, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, learned that some of the world’s cacao, the raw base of chocolate, is picked by forced child labor in Africa. The policymakers recognized that banning cacao would not address the economic, cultural and social conditions in Africa—such as illiteracy, powerlessness, inadequate governance and the lack of economic alternatives—that lead some farmers to rely on forced child labor.
So they decided to press the major global chocolate companies to address these conditions. In September 2001, plantation owners, cacao traders and chocolate manufacturers agreed to the Harkin-Engel Protocol. They promised to end these conditions and develop a certification to reassure consumers that their chocolate was not made with forced child labor.
Alas, the chocolate industry has yet to develop that certification. Activists are understandably frustrated and, thus, are pressing Congress to ban cacao that isn’t fairly traded.
But the protocol is changing human rights conditions on the ground. Forty-two countries agreed to abide by its strictures. National governments, international organizations, chocolate companies and foundations are providing both money and expertise to address the many factors that perpetuate slavery. Donors have set up schools and provided money to farmers that let children attend these schools. Donors are also helping farmers become more productive without using forced labor. Meanwhile, the International Labor Organization is helping government officials enforce labor laws.
Will a similar strategy work in Brazil? The Brazilian government, in cooperation with the ILO, has several programs in place to address forced and slave labor. These programs have some record of success, but many slave labor incidents occur in the black market economy—areas out of the reach of the government. U.S. companies are, however, trying to make a difference on the ground in Brazil, too. The Automotive Industry Action Group is trying to educate auto industry suppliers regarding how they can tell if a product could be made with slave labor and how to avoid buying such products. Meanwhile, Engel and Harkin are planning hearings on the pig iron allegations in the spring.
Forced child labor and slavery will only stop when companies use their market power to prod their first-tier suppliers, who in turn will force their vendors not to rely on forced labor. But policymakers in the developing and industrialized world have an important role to play here, too. They must develop strategies that address the lack of opportunities, power and education that allow individuals to be enslaved.