We were, many of us, directed to the concept of "supply chain" in 2020. Honestly, most of us likely pay too little attention to the challenges that are presented by the manufacture and transport of the goods that we find on our local shelves. Of course, that is only true until some product is missing. During the early days of COVID-19 some of us hoarded material such as toilet paper. It was not the only item in short supply, but it exemplifies demand outpacing supply, shortages, and some of our consumer tendencies.
For some, the introduction to "supply chain" came about a year ago with an Executive Ordermentioning the term in regards to computer security. There are potential challenges with manufactured goods whether they are consumer products or they are integrated into other goods. As noted in Hardwired Hacking in November 2018. Even those who have studied supply chain, or who labor in it daily, may periodically take for granted the production, distribution, and consumption of various products in our daily life.
In our COVID-19 world, there has been discussion of repatriating some of the U.S. supply chain. This would be an effort to return various production to U.S. soil. This COVID-conversation has focused on medications, masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Promoting U.S. production would perhaps shorten the "chain" as products would travel less in reaching store shelves or the consumer.
There remain challenges in that also, as it remains possible that a product manufactured in the U.S. might nonetheless require raw materials to be shipped in from somewhere else. The "chain" could refer to any product or component. It is also probable that the labor costs of producing in the U.S. would be more significant, while lower shipping costs would offset some of that. These economics are all considerations.
Some argue that returning manufacturing to the U.S. would increase the "factory jobs" of our industrialized past. Others suggest that the evolution of technology and robotics might mean the return of domestic manufacturing but with a demand for a "new kind of factory worker." In these supply chain decisions there will be individual and community winners and losers as jobs in a given location persist, evolve, or decline. In all, it has been an interesting discussion that has led to the subject of slavery.
Of course slavery was abolished in the United States "with adoption of the 13th Amendment," according to History. The ratification date was December 2, 1865, followed by the "official adoption" days later on December 18, 1865. The History article is an interesting read. And, there are various perspectives on when the end of slavery should be recognized. Some advocate for January 1, 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation; others for the June 19, 1865 date when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas; this has come to be known as Juneteenth. There is historical significance to each of these days.
These focus on the U.S. Slavery was openly practiced long after the U.S. abolition. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation(BBC), Mauritania was the last county in the world to ban slavery, in 1981; but, this article says that it nonetheless persisted there after abolition. And, there are those, like abolishslavery.org, who remind us that there are "vulnerable populations" that remain today "at risk for human trafficking." There is, today, slavery in our modern world. It exists and persists around us.
In a discussion with young people recently, the slavery topic arose and led to discussion of human oppression around the globe. One astute student mentioned that oppression and "mass incarceration" (as mentioned by CBS) are of concern but not as troubling as modern slavery. That comment drew incredulity, questions, and interest. Many conversants jumped to the perception that the speaker meant slavery as a U.S. institution, but at least one jumped to the more recently (Mauritania) abandoned practice of modern slavery.
Some see the abolition of slavery in 1981 (as a legal institution, Mauritania) as the end of that institution. But others say that slavery remains a modern scourge. While Americans may not perceive themselves as individually playing a role in the oppression of peoples around the world, some suggest that as consumers we individually and collectively continue to support the institution of slavery through our consumption of products that are tainted with contribution from slave labor.
The term coined for this is "supply chain slavery," referring to the process through which slave labor is engaged in the production of raw materials or components that are integrated into products we purchase, thus financing those who actually oppress. The recent conversation with today's youth led me to check some facts.
The practice does not "look the way it did a hundred years ago," but instead is an exploitation of "poor people" who seek work, only to "find themselves exploited." Some of these "workers are paid very little," and "some are not paid at all." Fast Company estimates that 16 million people worldwide "are exploited by companies for a profit."
CNBC reports that in 2016 about 46 million people on this planet were slaves. This includes people trapped by debt-bondage, those born into servitude, forced labor, and those trafficked for sex work. Antislavery.org contends that "slavery exists in all stages of the supply chain," from raw materials to product shipping and delivery. It contends that business must police their supply network and assure that it is free of this practice. One website, www.medium.com, contends brands such as "Adidas, Apple, Amazon, Gap, H&M, Microsoft, Nike, Sony, Victoria's Secret and Zara" are implicated in the violation of human rights. Some of these allegations are echoed by ABC News.
Before delving further into the supply chain that is remote, note the human tracking element. According to Business Insurance, that was outlawed in the U.S. only in 2000. Though there are no reliable figures on scope, "estimates place it in the hundreds of thousands" of people in the U.S. They may be engaged "in the sex industry, or in the hospitality, beauty, or agricultural industries." That is right here in the U.S. and exists because there are consumers for the products and services involved.
Returning to the supply chain, the implications are beyond clothing, electronics, and shoes. In 2019, the Washington Post featured "Cocoa's child laborers," detailing an "epidemic of child labor" that has been known of for decades. And, it notes that "the world's larges chocolate companies" long ago promised to eradicate the practice. The article notes that these laborers came to the cocoa harvesting region seeking work and some intended to also obtain education. As a result, the Post claims, "the odds are substantial that a chocolate bar bought in the U.S. is the product of child labor." Not that children produced the actual bar necessarily, but that their labor is in that supply chain.
The eradication challenge, according to the Post, is exacerbated by the fact that companies "cannot identify the farms where all their cocoa (supply) comes from." Without knowing the location of production, determining the labor practices there is impossible. It notes that the $103 billion industry spends significantly ("$150 million over 18 years") in striving to eradicate the child labor concerns. Despite that, "Hershey, Mars, and Nestle - could not guarantee that any of their chocolates were produced without child labor."
Some estimate that "2.1 million West African children engage in the dangerous and taxing work of harvesting cocoa." According to endslaverynow.com, these children are "sold into slavery by their families, trafficked from relatively poorer countries . . ., or kidnapped." They are working throughout the daylight, "beaten if they work too slowly," and use dangerous equipment "such as machetes and chainsaws."
According to Reuters, the situation is similar in South America, but the product there is largely coffee instead of cocoa. There, harvesters have been found to be "undocumented, underpaid, and lacking safety equipment." A labor inspector in Brazil characterized workers as having "no rights at all." Similarly, there have reportedly been "years of efforts to clean up" the coffee harvesting industry. Despite the continued involvement of these workers, "coffee produced by forced labor was stamped slavery-free by top certification schemes and sold at a premium to major brands such as Starbucks and Nespresso."
The United States Department of Labor lists staggering statistics in a 2018 report. These include "152 million children in child labor," and "25 million people in forced labor" in 2016. The list of products and countries is expansive, well beyond what any shopper might be able to commit to memory, including "148 goods, 76 countries, (and) 418 line items." The report is a sobering read. I recommend it nonetheless.
Some suggest that American shoppers are not very attuned to the potential of slave involvement with products that they purchase. Until this recent conversation and my follow-up reading it did not occur to me that my shoes, cell phone, and chocolate (I gave up coffee in February 2005, so that is one supply chain of which I am free) were implicated in the oppression (at best) of populations. Has it occurred to you? In a world of cancel cultureat the slightest of impetus, has it occurred to you that slavery still exists on this planet and that your consumption of various products feeds the oppressors?
More curious, does it occur to the virtue signaling among us who advocate the cancel culture while wearing or even promoting those very shoes, apparel, and other products? Is it impractical to assure the absence of slavery from a product supply chain, or is it simply less expensive for companies to not aggressively pursue such assurance? The implications are troubling, as is the realization that our personal consumption habits may be driving misery and despair in harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation, and more.
Do we accept it, ignore it, or change it? If we decide to change it, how would we rationally and effectively pursue that? The community that so ably focuses upon the safety and welfare of American workers ought to be able to conceive some paths to improved treatment of the labor throughout the marketplace and supply chain.
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