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December 24, 2016

A Gift Free from Forced Labor

This time of year many people are out searching for the perfect gifts for family, friends, and sometimes even the dog. But, before you purchase that new tablet, cozy sweater, or piece of shiny jewelry, think twice about where it came from.

In business, supply chains refers to the sequences of production and distribution a product or good goes through before it finds its way into our homes. Over the past year we saw companies across the board show a growing initiative to clean up their supply chains. In February new provisions in the Tariff Act finally closed the consumptive demand loophole, which for years allowed goods made with forced labor to enter the United States. The U.S. government is now working diligently to enforce this new provision, but regulations alone will not fully deter the use of forced labor. While some companies are working to mitigate this problem, it also falls on the shoulders of consumers to make educated decisions as they shop for gifts this holiday season.

Thinking about buying a tablet for your Uncle Jim? Electronics are comprised of hundreds of components and small pieces, each coming from a unique background that could be of concern. Technology is one of the most at-risk sectors for forced labor abuses, ignoring workers needs and profiting from poor labor standards in countries where most of these goods are mined or produced. Cobalt, for example, is a key mineral in the lithium batteries used in cell phones, laptops, and tablets. Unfortunately, it is predominantly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where adult and child forced labor is widespread and condoned by the state.

Before you lay down your hard-earned cash, consider that some companies have taken it upon themselves to responsibly address such problems in their supply chains─some have even formed coalitions that make it easier for companies to address these issues. Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, and Sony are part of the Responsible Cobalt Initiative, which requires companies to responsibly extract, transport, and manufacture cobalt, correcting any abuses of forced labor immediately. Additionally, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition is attempting to end the use of recruitment fees that make migrant workers beholden to employers, while Cisco and Apple reimburse workers their recruitment fees, undermining the debt cycle that leads to slavery.

But it’s not just electronics. That sweater you’re eyeing for your friend? Many fabrics, including cotton, are produced or made with forced labor. Apparel manufactures often have nebulous, complicated supply chains that extend across the world, making it hard to track. Many companies are focused on eliminating forced labor within their first-tier suppliers, unfortunately ignoring the many steps clothing takes before shipment. Many companies aren’t even aware of forced labor in their supply chains because they hire workers through labor brokers, the people often charging exorbitant recruitment fees that force workers into debt bondage.

While debating which size will fit her, visit KnowtheChain. The group recently published a benchmark report, which ranks the largest apparel companies on their efforts to address forced labor in their supply chains. Their rankings are based on companies’ supply chain standards, corporate processes to assess forced labor risks, and methods of correcting or remedying contracts with suppliers who utilize forced labor. Although it is hard to trace clothing back to its origins, reports like this are making sure it can be done.

Regardless of whether you buy electronics or clothing, chances are that your gifts have encountered forced labor. In 2016 the Department of Labor published a list of 139 goods coming from 75 countries that were produced with significant incidence of forced labor. Those are just products with significant incidence, it doesn’t even delve into the list of all products. To stop funding forced labor, businesses and consumers must play a role. Business must closely examine their supply chains and thoroughly review contracted labor suppliers. Companies need to create systems and standards for their supply chains, and implement corrective solutions when forced labor is identified. As consumers we need to educate ourselves so we can drive companies to be transparent about supply chains with the power of the purse. With so many companies raising the bar and working to eliminate forced labor in their supply chains, there is no reason to continue supporting those who don’t.

It’s time that we begin shopping ethically, it’s time we start giving our loved ones gifts that really come from the heart.