In conducting my research, I came across numerous articles that implicated a variety of brands in less than savoury practices along their global supply chain. It was eye-opening to read about these incidents. My hope is that in reading these accounts, one can get a better sense of the context of labour-rights abuses that goes beyond what makes its way to the mainstream. One usually hears of the offences of brands such as Nike, Walmart and H&M. However, exploitative labour involves a very large number of well-known corporations around the globe.
- The Chocolate Industry
Nestlé, Kit-Kat, Cadbury, Kraft Foods, Hershey’s, Mars, Fowler’s Chocolate, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)
The companies listed above source a significant amount of the cocoa used in the production of their goods from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The cocoa farming region in West Africa in general supplies approximately 70% of the world’s cocoa. In the late 90’s, reports began to uncover a shocking prevalence of unpaid child labourers in cocoa farms. In response, a group of confectionery companies signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001, vowing to undertake measures to eradicate child labour and human trafficking in their cocoa supply chains. However, in October 2018, a human rights lawyer involved in investigations into the cocoa industry since 2005 sued Nestlé and Cargill for deliberately ignoring court-mandated measures for stemming child labour.
Evidently, the goals and targets that they set to curb these practices appear not to have been met sufficiently. The documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate”, released in 2010, showed a pattern of children being trafficked on buses from Mali and Burkina Faso to work for no pay in cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. They are promised money by the traffickers and lured to farms outside their home countries, where some children do not even speak the dialect, and kept there indefinitely, working in quasi-slavery, without payment or a chance to go to school, beaten often to incentivize them to wrok harder. The bus driver union of Sikasso, a border town of Mali, set out to rescue as many children as they could when they saw them being trafficked in bus stations. Annually, they had intercepted an average of 140 children, aged from 10 to 15 years old, with some even as young as 7.
A Tulane University study published in 2015 showed that since the time of the documentary’s recording, child labour had increased by 21% in cocoa farming regions. 2.26 million children were now working in the cocoa farms of Ivory Coast and Ghana. When the Washington Post went on-site to some cocoa farms to investigate in 2019, it seems that the status quo has continued. They interviewed several boys in their early teens, one saying that he has not been to school for 5 years.
In addition to this, cocoa farming has brought negative changes to West Africa’s climate. Between 1990 and 2015, Ivory Coast lost 85% of its forests due to the clearing of land for agriculture. The natural forest cover on average for the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Burkina Faso has declined more than 70% in the past 3 decades. This deforestation has been linked to a decline in rainfall and an increase in the intensity and scope of the dry Harmattan winds. Eventually, these changes will render large parts of current cocoa lands unsuitable for farming.
Nestle Subsidiaries: Aero, After Eight, Crunch Bar, Milky Bar, Smarties, Chips Ahoy!, Big Turk
Mars Incorporated: Snickers, Twix, Dove, Whiskas, Pedigree Dog Food(!), Wrigley Gum, Galaxy, Bounty
Hershey’s: Reese’s Pieces, M&m’s, Cadbury (manufacturing)
Ferrero Rocher, Nutella, Godiva
More than 70% of the world’s hazelnuts come from Turkey, where exploitative and child labour have been found to be widespread practices. Investigation in 2019 found that most labourers in hazelnut farms are poor Kurdish or Syrian immigrants who are paid as little as $11 dollars a day, 10% of which is used to pay a commission to labour contractors. Children as young as 10 work alongside adults. They all carry heavy rucksacks for collecting the hazelnut pods on their backs, and work along steep slopes for as long as 10 hours a day. In 2018, 67 children and teenagers lost their lives while doing illegal and unregistered work.
In addition to Nestlé and Godiva, the Ferrero company (manufacturer of Ferrero Rocher chocolates and the Nutella brand) is a big customer of Turkish hazelnuts. Here, it buys approximately 30% of the hazelnuts it uses in its chocolates.
- The Electronics Industry
HP, Apple, Acer, Sony
In 2017, investigations in China uncovered that students as young as 16 were doing unpaid work in assembly lines in factories manufacturing electronics for brands including the ones listed above. This was under the guise of “internships” which students were coerced into taking for months at a time. Overtime could stretch a workday for as long as 12 hours, and the students sometimes went for months at a time without a day off. The companies owning factories would pay illegal fees to various vocational schools and universities to get teachers to accompany students to factories. The teachers could also prod uncooperative students into accepting overtime, and threaten them with funding cuts and a delay in graduation upon further refusal. This practice is prevalent in China. Student interns are a source of cheap and disposable labour, with a fresh batch of students readily available when one group completes their internship.
One factory in the Chongqing district had a workforce that was 50% unpaid student interns. This factory was owned by Quanta Computers, a fortune 500 company whose factories in China claim to produce a third of all PC laptops globally. Apple also admitted to using child labour under the pseudonym of work experience in a factory run by the conglomerate Foxconn. Students from 17 to 19 years old were forced to work on assembly lines building the iPhone X.
Additional brands implicated in labour rights abuse in China by the Ethical Consumer include: Google, Samsung, VeryPC, ASAU, Acer, MSI and Micropro
Huawei, Micropro (iameco), MSI, VeryPC, Samsung
The companies listed above do not have adequate policies addressing their use of conflict minerals in their supply chains, or do not address it at all.
The term “conflict minerals” refers to minerals that are sourced in part from conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo: tantalum, tin, gold and cobalt. 75% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the DRC. Coltan is the mineral from which tantalum is extracted from, and the extracts from this region account for 80% of the world’s supply. Tantalum is used on circuit boards, tin in solder, tungsten in the phone vibration mechanism, gold in connectors, and cobalt in the production of batteries.
The DRC is a country plagued with internal conflict that dates back to the 60’s. Some local militias and guerilla warfare groups will seize control over areas with mineral ores as a means of funding their weaponry supply, prolonging the conflict, and the human rights abuses that come with it. Some parties have no qualms doing business with warlords: prices are cheap, and a state rife with instability and corruption does not exactly prioritize trade regulation.
A 2016 report from Amnesty International found that approximately 40,000 children work in coltan mining sites around Congo. Miners dig deep tunnels into the bare soil, descending underground to get to the mineral deposits. In these tunnels they eat, sleep and work from dawn to dusk. The rainy season adds an extra layer of danger, with dampened soil far more likely to cause the tunnels to collapse. One miner being interviewed said: “No one knows for sure how many people die in this mine…There are days when 30 or 40 people fall…Someone will scratch their names off a list, then hire their replacements.”.
It is nearly impossible to consume any electronic device ethically. Coltan is used in the rechargeable batteries of nearly all compact devices such as cameras, laptops and mobile phones. Be mindful of this in your consumption of them, and in the frequency of getting replacements.
- The Fashion Industry
Walmart, Gap, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger, Sears, Primark, Tesco, Aldi
The aforementioned brands have garment factories in Bangladesh, where the garment workers are some of the lowest paid in the world. The country has 4 million workers in this industry, the majority of whom are women. Even the state endorsed minimum wage is not enough to sustain a basic life. However, it is not uncommon for workers to be denied even this minimum, which further compels them to work longer and longer hours of overtime simply to support themselves and their families. It is not a coincidence that Bangladesh will appear again and again on other examples on this list. It is one country among many where workers’ rights are not a priority of the state.
In January 2019, more than 5,000 Bangladeshi garment workers went on strike to demand better wages. 52 different factories in the Dhaka manufacturing district had to shut down operations. One worker was killed when the police fired teargas and rubber bullets into the crowd of protesters.
A 2018 report interviewed 540 workers in Gap and H&M factories across various countries: Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The workers described many instances of abuse from factory management including threats, and physical and sexual abuse. These included verbal insults or beatings for not meeting production targets, and groping by factory foremen on the assembly line.
In 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka District collapsed. It had housed 5 different garment factories, and of the 1,132 killed and 2,500 injured, many were garment workers. The survivors interviewed say that on the day of the accident, they had noticed cracks in the walls and notified management. However, their complaints were ignored and they were forced into the building.
This incident came just 5 months after another building in Dhaka, Tazreen Fashions, caught fire, killing 112 garment workers who were trapped inside. After Rana Plaza, the trend of hazardous working conditions for factory employees continued, with another 35 fatal textile factory accidents occurring by 2017.
Nike, Puma, Asics, VF
In 2017, a wave of mass faintings saw more than 500 workers hospitalized in Cambodia. This affected 4 different factories that supplied for the above brands. The most concentrated episode happened when 360 of the 500 workers collapsed in a space of only 3 days. The women who collapsed were employees on short-term contracts, most working 10 hours/day for 6 days a week.
Temperatures inside the factories could go up to 37°C. Unlike neighbouring country Vietnam whose law sets a factory temperature limit of 32 degrees, Cambodia has no concrete legal restrictions concerning this.
Some contributing factors to the collapses could be poor ventilation in the work setting, chemicals inside and outside the factory, and high pressure to perform due to their temporary contract status. Many workers reported feeling exhausted and hungry.
None of the 4 factories pay their workers what is considered a living wage, which in Cambodia is about $500/month.
In 2016, the Workers Rights Consortium did an on-site factory investigation in Hansae Vietnam, which supplies for Nike, Gap and L Brands (owner of Victoria’s Secret). It found instances of extensive wage theft, exposure to toxic chemicals, excessive overtime, and a combination of high pressure to meet sales quotas and factory temperatures of about 35 °C that caused workers to frequently collapse. (Really puts the “sweat” in sweatshop hehe…) In addition to this, factory managers were in charge of the factory union, therefore limiting their employees freedom of expression and association typical in a trade union setting.
From interviewing individual workers, the WRC heard of instances of verbal and physical abuse from management.
Hansae Vietnam also supplies for: Gap, H&M, Inditex (which owns Zara), Target, Walmart, JCPenney, Macy’s, Hanes, and Children’s Place.
Target, Cotton On, Big W, Kmart
In 2019, Oxfam interviewed 470 women, garment workers in Bangladesh and Vietnam who work in factories supplying for brands including the ones listed above. It was found that some workers were paid wages as low as 51 cents an hour. 100% of the workers in Bangladesh and 74% of those in Vietnam could not make ends meet.
With their small earnings, they are unable to send their children to school, get treatment when they fall sick, or get adequate housing for their families. Mothers are separated from their children, unable to live with them due to their excessive working hours, and people sleep on the floors of overcrowded houses. If brands absorbed the cost of paying what would be considered a living wage in these countries, it would amount to less than 1% of garment prices.
Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s
In 2017, the US Department of Labour investigated 77 garment factories in the Los Angeles fashion district and found that workers were paid as little as 4$/hour and an average of 7$/hour. The minimum wage for LA is $12/hour. A large number of the workers were immigrants from countries such as Mexico, some of whom were over 50 and spoke little English.
The Department of Labour charged and fined the factories, but due to loopholes in the laws concerning the outsourcing of production, could not touch the brands. A knee-length Forever 21 dress retails for about $24.90. It would have to cost $30.43 more to pay workers even just the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and even more for LA’s minimum. Question the cheap!
Some other brands who also source their garments from factories in LA include: Urban-Outfitters, Aldo, Dillards, Rainbow Apparel, Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal, and Burlington Coat Factory.
Victoria’s Secret, Mark’s & Spencer, Calvin Klein
In 2018, interviews from garment workers in Sri Lankan factories that produce for brands such as the ones listed above showcase harsh working conditions, with 10 hour days as a norm. The production targets per worker are very high and stringently enforced by management. The workers have to stand for long hours, which causes physical complications such as spinal pain, varicose veins and swelling. The workers say that they are not provided with adequate face masks to protect them from factory chemicals. These chemicals are also released into the environment nearby. MAS Holdings, the company that owns the factories, employs 95,000 people in total, mainly women, in countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, Haiti and Vietnam.
2 factories in the North of Sri Lanka employ people from a number of villages. With no boarding facilities within the plant compounds, 23 buses are used to ferry the workers every morning at 5:30 am, with approximately 100 workers crammed into each bus. They work from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm daily. In some factories overtime is compulsory, meaning that the workers do not get home until 11pm.
Another brand that has been accused of using exploitative labour in Sri Lanka is Beyoncé’s clothing line, Ivy Park.
New Look, Sports Direct, H&M
In 2017, a dutch labour rights group interviewed 400 workers from 12 different factories in Myanmar that supplied for brands including the aforementioned. It was discovered that a number of the factory workers were children, some as young as 14 years old.
The legal minimum wage in Myanmar is under $3 per day, a far cry from what is needed for human survival (estimated in Myanmar to be about $40/day). However, in the factories investigated, some workers were found to be paid half that amount, just over $1 a day. All the workers interviewed worked 6 days a week: this was, of course, a necessity in order to get by.
ASOS, Zara, Marks & Spencer
A BBC investigation in 2016 uncovered exploitative labour in the Turkish textile industry. Suppliers for the above brands in Istanbul were found to be hiring Syrian refugees who were desperate for work, adults as well as children. These refugees were recruited by middlemen who paid them in cash on the street, wages as low as $1 dollar an hour, well below the Turkish minimum.
Both Syrian and Turkish children were found to be working in these factories, the youngest a 15 year old boy who spent 12 hours a day ironing shirts. Illegal child labour is especially prevalent in smaller workshops that suppliers subcontract, which are difficult to regulate.
Other brands implicated in the BBC documentary were Next and Mango
- The Tobacco Industry
Philip Morris (Marlboro), British American Tobacco (Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Rothmans)
According to an investigation by The Guardian in 2018, child labour in tobacco farms in Malawi, Mexico and Indonesia is rampant. In Malawi, the average income of a tobacco farmer for 10 months of work is $380. Low pay is a leading contributor to the high prevalence of children working in the fields. Farmers seek to save costs at every turn in order to get as much of their meager earnings as they can. Some farm workers who live in straw huts on the outskirts of farmland are not paid for the entire ten months until harvest. Families have to survive on weekly pails of maize handed to them by their landlords.
In Mexico, out of the 10 farms that The Guardian visited, children were seen working in 7. A 14 year old girl in Indonesia who has worked on tobacco fields since she was little has developed chronic chest problems due to the physical strain and her close proximity to the crop. Tobacco harvesting is a far from ideal line of work for children, given the exposure to tobacco fumes during the oven-drying process for the leaves.
- The Toy Industry
Disney, Hasbro, Mattel
In 2018, undercover investigators with CNBC infiltrated factories in China that manufactured toys for Disney and Hasbro, keeping diaries as they worked among the employees incognito. It was found that in peak production season, employees could sometimes be made to work up to 175 hours of overtime a month. The legal restriction is 36 hours, but factories can persuade local governments to allow bypassing existing legislature. Each worker had a daily quota of 2,500 Princess Ariel dolls to produce everyday, with 1 cent earned per doll. One investigator noted that most of her colleagues were women over 45, seen as docile and manageable: the line leaders would yell if the women worked too slow.
Workers were given no safety training or equipment to prepare them to handle toxic chemicals used in the production process. Living in the factory compounds was compulsory, in dormitories with small rooms that housed 8 workers each. The investigators found the facilities to be very unsanitary, and the food provided by the factory of low quality. One of the factories investigated, located in the Wah Tung district, is certified by the Ethical Toy Program, highlighting the current inadequacy in labour law enforcement and on-site inspections. In 2015, the Chinese Labour watch found instances of sweatshop conditions in Chinese factories manufacturing “Star Wars” dolls for Disney and Mattel.