Throughout 2020, countless companies issued statements on racial inequality in the United States. However, many of these same companies are complicit in slavery in China or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is increasingly clear that the U.S. must once more stamp out slavery wherever it resides.
In its “2020 List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor,” the Department of Labor lists some forty countries that use forced labor, many in conjunction with child labor. This is not a short list. The products and countries listed include diamonds from Angola, electronics and clothing from Malaysia, pornography from Russia, carpets and textiles from India, and tungsten and tin ore from the DRC. The most shocking perpetrator of forced labor, though, is that of China.
Forced Labor in China Continues Unopposed
China’s forced labor produces artificial flowers, Christmas decorations, footwear, clothing, hair products, and tomato products, which are then shipped worldwide. Through a combination of child labor and forced labor, the country also produces cotton, electronics, textiles, and toys. Just glancing over this foreshortened list, it’s clear that countless American firms are implicated in the trade of slave-produced goods.
More specifically, the Department of Labor estimates that some 100,000 Uighurs—a predominantly-Muslim ethnic minority that lives in the Xinjiang region in Northwest China—may be working in conditions of forced labor following their detention in “re-education” camps. Many Uighur workers are believed to have been forcefully transported by the Chinese state to other provinces to work, often under the guise of “poverty alleviation.” The Chinese government also subsidizes companies that move to Xinjiang or “employ” Muslim workers, which only encourages their exploitation.
“Save Uighur”—a project managed by the Chicago-based organization Justice For All—claims that some 83 companies internationally make use of Uighur forced labor. Too many of these companies are U.S. companies, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Cisco Systems, General Motors (G.M.), L.L. Bean, Nike, The North Face, Polo Ralph Lauren, Skechers, and Victoria’s Secret.
Over the course of 2020, Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Cisco, General Motors, L.L. Bean, Nike, The North Face, Polo Ralph Lauren, and Victoria’s Secret issued statements about racial inequality in the United States. To be clear, every company listed above as benefitting from forced labor in Xinjiang—except Skechers—issued a statement against racial injustice in 2020. Every statement emphasized the need for equity, the importance of safety for all people, and the responsibility each company was assuming to address racial injustice. Apparently, these companies’ promises to combat inequality are only applicable within the United States.
Nike’s statement on racial injustice is representative of the sum. In its statement this summer, Nike’s CEO John Donahoe promised that Nike would “educate [itself] more deeply on the issues faced by Black communities and understand the enormous suffering and senseless tragedy racial bigotry creates.” The statement goes on, stating that Nike “[believes] in a level playing field for all and leveraging the power of sport and [its] brands to move the world forward.”
Nike’s statement also touts the company’s “Impact Report.” While the report states that the company strictly prohibits “forced, bonded, prison or indentured labor,” the report does not state how many incidents or reports there were of forced labor in FY2019. Instead, under the heading “Forced Labor,” there is a chart entitled “Voluntary-Labor Related Findings,” which reports a dozen reported cases over the past four years. The one incident in FY2019 —as explained in a footnote—was a failure to acquire work visas in Indonesia. Uighurs and the Xinjiang region are not mentioned in Nike’s report in any capacity. But in the end, why would any company report their own use of forced labor?
Meanwhile, other companies operating in China have also failed to condemn the activity in Xinjiang. Some—such as Disney—have even worked with the local government that is perpetuating the atrocities.
Tech Companies Fail to Investigate Suppliers in the DRC
The elaborate, decentralized supply lines of cobalt ore make tracking abusive practices in the DRC difficult. However, this is not an excuse for complacency and ignorance
In 2019, International Rights Advocates—an organization which represents those that cannot afford legal representation—filed suit against Apple, Tesla, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Dell. The suit—filed on behalf of 14 families from the DRC—alleges that the five corporations were complicit in forced child labor that resulted in death or injury.
All of these alleged injuries or deaths occurred while mining cobalt ore, a metal essential for rechargeable lithium batteries. The DRC is the source of over half the world’s cobalt, and an estimated 30% of its cobalt is mined by child labor. The five companies defended themselves, arguing that the distance between their operations and the source of their materials is too tenuous for legal action to be brought against them.
Cobalt mining is particularly difficult to address, given the complex supply chains that bring it from the earth to the hands of electronics companies. 15–30% of the DRC’s cobalt mining is decentralized among small-scale, “artisanal” mining companies. Amnesty International reports that the cobalt is largely acquired by the Chinese firm Huayou Cobalt, which produces batteries that end up in many electronics and electric vehicles. Amnesty International states that combatting exploitative practices in the cobalt mining industry requires companies to follow these supply chains all the way back to their source—which, while obviously difficult to do, is no less necessary.
To evaluate each company’s diligence in reducing the use of unethically acquired cobalt, Amnesty International developed a scale in 2017 that ranges from “no action taken” to “all possible action taken.” No companies were listed as having taken “all possible action.” Apple was the only company in the aforementioned list that was seen as taking “adequate” action. Dell and Tesla were ranked under “moderate action taken,” while Microsoft fell under “no action taken.” Additional companies, such as Sony, G.M., and Chrysler, fell under “minimal action taken.” Alphabet was not included in the report.
However, as before, each of these companies issued statements over the course of 2020 stating their commitment to addressing racial inequality in the United States. Despite operating in nearly a dozen countries, Microsoft’s statement on racial inequality—posted to the official company blog—states that it will “improve the lives of Black and African American citizens across our country” (emphasis added). Michael Dell reportedly wrote that “the key lesson [of this summer] was the need to create space for tough conversations, have greater leadership accountability, and take actions to help drive positive socio-economic change for communities of color.” Tesla begrudgingly made Juneteenth an unpaid holiday, under threat of protest from its employees. Sony tweeted that it will “work towards a future marked by empathy” and released a free BLM PlayStation 4 theme. The CEO of Google Sundar Pichai published a piece to The Keyword in which he outlined the reforms Google would implement, including “[establishing] a range of anti-racism educational programs that are global in view and able to scale to all Googlers.” In a statement entitled “Speaking Up on Racism,” Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote that “[w]hile our laws have changed, the reality is that their protections are still not universally applied.”
The U.S. Must Ramp Up Action
Admittedly, the U.S. government has not remained completely inactive on these issues, but additional measures to combat slavery must be implemented.
On December 31, 2020, the U.S. government banned imports of palm oil from a Malaysian company after an investigation indicated abuse, including “physical and sexual violence, restriction of movement, intimidation and threats, debt bondage, withholding wages and excessive overtime.” The investigation further asserted that this problem was systemic, occurring on a number of plantations across Malaysia.
Likewise, on January 13, 2021, the U.S. banned cotton and tomato imports from Xinjiang, China, due to reports of the use of forced labor. In imposing the ban, the U.S. followed similar actions made by Canada and Britain. However, NGO’s are now calling for further bipartisan action to combat forced labor in the region.
The Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act is the logical next step in combatting slavery. The bill, which passed the House of Representatives in December 406-3, would ban enumerated goods from the Xinjiang region unless a company can prove their goods were not produced using forced labor. Many corporations, including Coca-Cola, Apple, and Nike lobbied for changes to this bill, though they’ve objected to claims that they are seeking to “water [it] down.” Their claims remain unconvincing, given that a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that some 80,000 Uighurs have been forcibly moved throughout China to work in factories, including those which supply Amazon, Apple, and Nike.
Much less action has been taken to address abuses in the DRC. In 2018, the Bureau of International Labor Affairs, a division of the Department of Labor, offered a $2.5 million grant to an organization that could provide a plan to help the DRC in its efforts to combat human trafficking, forced labor, sex slavery, and child labor. In a 2019 report from the Department of Labor, however, the DRC was found to be taking inadequate measures to combat all of the above issues.
The most saddening aspect of this article is how much information had to be left out. Many of the companies mentioned in this piece also exploit children abroad, as child labor and forced labor are a malicious pairing. The examples above are but a fraction of the picture. The International Labor Organization estimates that there are some 24.9 million people working under conditions of forced labor.
Further action by the U.S. government to combat slavery is imperative. The above actions are good first steps, but they fail to fully resolve the problem. And even more welcome than government intervention—which is inevitably slow—would be the voluntary divestment of U.S. firms from regions and companies that use forced and child labor. Their involvement abroad is a deep betrayal of America’s core values, and an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude is evil on its face.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.