Boycotting is an Incomplete Answer

Image via official White House photographer                                        

A little less than three weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed a bill barring the import of goods produced by forced or child labor from entering the United States. This measure closes a loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930 which allowed for the import of such goods due to “consumptive demand.” Meaning that previously, if we Americans wanted that product bad enough, we’d turn a blind eye to forced labor. Even without those words, the lists of products don’t include Apple devices, which have been accused of slave and child labor for years. It’s a nasty conversation, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong – this is a very big deal and a huge step forward. But we have a long way to go before we can call this one solved. Americans love their boycotts. Boycotts are neat and tidy: do this, don’t do that, get on with your own busy-ness, end of story. Not so fast.  

Imagine if you will, a working farm:  this one happens to produce eggs. Hens lay eggs, and when they are no longer producing, they are slaughtered (let’s hope humanely) and sold as whole chickens or chicken parts. But they are not kept as pets. If they cannot produce for the farm, they are eliminated from the farm. Those hens are replaced with chicks hatched from eggs laid.  Some of those newly hatched chicks will be male. Some of those male chicks will be sold. But if not all of those male chicks can be sold and not all of those male chicks serve a purpose, the remaining male chicks are (guess what?) destroyed. If they cannot produce for the farm, they are eliminated from the farm. All of this is normal on a working farm. It is not a petting zoo.

Now imagine that slaves have less value to their captors than the farmers we imagined above.  Slaves need food, clothes, and housing. If the goods a slave produces are no longer needed, a slave can no longer make a valuable contribution to the factory or production facility in which that individual has been held captive. Now what?

It’s the now what that frightens me terribly.  If the young people who have been peeling shrimp for sixteen hours each day suddenly have no value as shrimp peelers, what prevents them from being sold into the sex trade?  This bill sets up nothing to address the human trafficking crisis and makes no provisions for the slaves themselves.  We just simply won’t need their services any longer.

It’s a huge step forward to tell the world that we won’t support forced labor.

The problem is there are people out there who have been forced into labor who need our support.  We haven’t solved this for them.

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