President Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act Feb. 24, banning the import of goods produced by child or slave labor to the United States. This ban finally closed the loophole left open by the Tariff Act of 1930, which allowed Customs and Border Protection to seize goods they suspected of being produced by slave labor, but also gave officers the authority to let products into the country if demand was high enough. Because American consumers — even socially conscious ones — will not change their purchasing behaviors on their own, the Trade Facilitation Act is an important step in eliminating goods produced in inhumane work environments.
The ban took effect at the beginning of this month and has thus far restricted about 350 common imports. Among this list are electronics, garments and toys from China and diamonds from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone — three of the largest diamond producers in the world. The U.S. will also cease all sugarcane imports from Brazil and India, the two top sugarcane producers worldwide.
This ban is essential in upholding the human rights and workers’ rights fundamental to purported American values such as freedom and the pursuit of happiness. As the most developed country in the world, the U.S. has a responsibility to hold its foreign business partners to the high manufacturing standards to which it holds its own companies. The U.S. has unions, minimum wage and regulations for work environments and should not trade with countries that do not adhere to the same labor principles.
Opponents of the ban place the responsibility of making the most humane choice on the consumer. They argue that if the consumer is concerned about the well-being of those who create the products they purchase, they should research the origins of all the products they buy. However, the average consumer will purchase whatever is most convenient and avoid the time-consuming option. This ban forces the consumer to choose the most humane option because it is the only option available.
Yet, even for consumers who are more socially conscious, information about how clothing items are sourced is often often inaccessible to consumers. For example, clothing labels usually feature the garment’s country of production, but they do not list necessary details like the exact factory, its location, whether or not the factory was air-conditioned, how many hours a day the employees worked or other information critical to the well being of the worker. Even when the consumer can readily investigate a brand’s treatment of their workers, that information often only becomes available when a company becomes caught up in a scandal.
Illustrative of the consumer’s dilemma, Whole Foods has a bougie and socially conscious customer base that presumably wouldn’t dream of purchasing food made with slave labor — after all, they were the first store to abolish plastic bags. Whole Foods patrons are the Birkenstock-wearing, kale-munching, Hydroflask-sipping liberals who claim to care about global issues. And yet, just recently, one of Whole Foods suppliers, the New Zealand seafood company Sanford, was caught using slave labor on their foreign vessels to fish squid. If a consumer base as socially conscious as Whole Foods’ can unwittingly buy products made with forced labor, the average consumer will easily turn a blind eye to the sourcing of their products. The consumer’s only job is to buy products. They should not be required to research everything they spend their money on. The government must ensure that only items that are humanely produced make it to store shelves.
Without government initiative, forced and child labor will never end. Consumers will continue to buy these products due to lack of information and convenience. As the world’s largest importer, the U.S. government is taking a step in the right direction by banning the imports of child and slave labor. We must continue to establish policies that only accommodate companies that abide by humane manufacturing rules.
Sydney Hemmendinger is a sophomore history major. She can be reached at [email protected]