Inherent Worker Exploitation, and Our Complacency

The Dutch Government describes the phenomenon of Labor Exploitation as, “cases where people are made to work – voluntarily or under duress – while their employer withholds their wages and/or cases where they are made to work under very poor conditions.” Workers in the Global North generally agreed to contain North America, Western Europe and Japan, have the highest standards of workers rights. This developed, wealthy democratic archetype which has often had social safety nets built up over the course of its history, generally results in workers gaining some amount of protection from labour exploitation.

However, not all countries, nor even all democracies are developed and wealthy. Many, such as the ones we shall be analyzing today, located outside the Global North, are desperately poor and underdeveloped. This Diaspora isn’t natural and was instead created largely by those same wealthy, developed northern democracies. They developed it through generations of colonialism, and now the neoliberal influence of the IMF and World Bank (Helen Caraveli. 2016). More specifically, financial aid from the north to the south often comes with neoliberal barbs in the form of stipulations that destroy developing (expensive) welfare systems. In other words, the only way to economically grow for many countries is to accept aid but destroy workers protections. The message remains the same, no matter how much independence an ex-colonized country may officially receive, they will still be economically submissive to the colonizing nation which continues to rape them.

Today we shall take a closer look at the 3 Industries with serious workers rights abuses, and how our consumption of their products only continues to support their exploitation. These industries shall be diamond mining, cocoa farming, textile manufacturing. Inhabitants of the global north pay these industries tens of billions of euros a year, while they can’t be bothered to spend more of that money ensuring safe working conditions, fair pay, sick leave, and health care for all the workers they employ.

  • Diamond and Gold Mining:

According to an article by Human Rights Watch, in 2018 the combined Gold and Diamond industry were collectively worth 300 Billion US dollars, or roughly 25 Billion Euros. That’s about twice the net worth of the founder of Tesla, Elon Musk. The US has also consistently made up a 48% plurality of the yearly global demand for diamonds (Statista, 2021). Diamond mining is an incredibly successful sector, partially because mines often underpay workers, offer highly unsafe working conditions, have been shown to employ children, are often located in dangerous areas like warzones, may use slave labour, and do anything else to pitch a Penney at the worker’s expense. What’s more, the lack of regulation means that the worst offences against miners may still be unclear. Mines in countries like Ghana, the Philippines, Tanzania and the Central African Republic have all been found to consistently employ children, as young as 13, in dangerous conditions, often using chemicals like mercury without protection or safety education (Human Rights Watch, 2018). The worst ethically jewellery companies found were Boodles, Chopard, Christ, Harry Winston, and Tanishq.

  • Cocoa Farming:

Chocolate must be farmed in humid, tropical climates. It is no wonder then that developing countries in such climates, South America and Western Africa are the largest producers of cocoa beans. The Ivory Coast alone makes up a global majority of world cocoa production, supplying large and small chocolate companies alike (Statista. 2021. Cocoa bean production worldwide 2018/19 & 2020/21, by country). The Ivory Coast is also infamous for its widespread use of child and slave labour throughout its expansive cocoa farming industry (Whoriskey, P., Siegel, R., & Georges, S. 2019). In fact, there are basically no large chocolate companies who can claim, with any degree of certainty that they do not receive coco-products harvested with slave labour, including the “ethical” chocolate brand, Toney’s Chocolonley, which has recently been dropped from the Slave-Free Chocolocolate List (Kenber, B. I. R. 2021). Though there are “ethical” farms in the Ivory Coast, what must be remembered is that business ethics are an added expense. They can be ignored by farmers with little consequence, due to the lack of efficient domestic regulatory bodies. Why pay farmhands a fair wage when no one is checking? Add to this the fact that farms must compete with each other for the lowest produce prices, and we can see that the system was basically constructed to ensure rampant slave labour.

  • Style and Clothing Production:

Labour exploitation has been a defining aspect of the textile industry since the industrial revolution. An article by National Geographic describes its modern incarnation, the sweatshops in countries like China, Korea, Vietnam, and the fast-fashion trend which fuels them. According to National Geographic, this issue is not only terrible for workers protections, but also the environment. “The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTD) considers fashion to be the second most polluting industry in the world, after oil. According to British charity the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, estimates are that it's greenhouse gas emissions overtake those of the international marine and aviation industries combined – 1.2 billion tonnes annually.”

So what have we learned? Though seemingly out of sight for many in the global north, labour exploitation remains a defining aspect of modern neoliberal capitalism. Through obscenely cheap raw materials and manufactured goods, the money which is owed to workers in developing countries is instead allowed to stay in the pockets of their historic oppressors, the inhabitants of the global north. Our control of life-giving aid allows us to influence these countries, in ways that keep them indebted to us.

One might argue that sweatshops may be terrible, but are a necessary stage in the development of a nation. There must be a starting point when developing an industrial capitalist system, and oftentimes there is no choice but to overlook the rights of workers. That these jobs are in the fact a godsend because they give locals new opportunities besides farming. However, as human rights advocates, we have a responsibility to question with this statement. Development is made to give workers new opportunities, not new health risks, underpaid jobs, or danger to their children. Today, we know how to make factories, farms and mines safe enough to work in, no matter where they are in the world. There is no reason why sweatshops must still exist, short of our collective greed, and apathy towards human life that is less privileged than our own.

The Human Rights Watch article on diamond and gold mining offers a list of policy prescriptions to ensure ethical supply chains. Though it is specific to the gold and diamond mining industries, most of its suggestions apply to all international supply chains.

  • Put in place a robust supply chain policy that is incorporated into contracts with suppliers;

  • Establish a chain of custody over gold and diamonds by documenting business transactions along the full supply chain back to the mine of origin, including by requiring suppliers to share detailed evidence of the supply chain;

  • Assess human rights risks throughout their supply chains;

  • Respond to human rights risks throughout their supply chains;

  • Check their own conduct and that of their suppliers through independent third-party audits (a systematic and independent examination of a company’s conduct);

  • Publicly report on their human rights due diligence, including risks identified;

  • Publish the names of their gold and diamond suppliers;

  • And source from responsible, rights-respecting artisanal and small-scale mines

Expecting our self-serving international aid programs to solve the artificial diaspora between the north and south is nativity to the point of purposeful ignorance. We must demand that our national and global institutions do more to ensure that the items available on the market are universally ethically sourced and manufactured. This is the only way to keep our economic system from dirtying our hands with the blood of innocent, underprivileged workers in developing countries.