Escaping Exploitative Labour Practices

Inevitably, in discussions about our complicity in exploitative labour systems, people start talking about how to be ethical consumers. How to make purchases that don’t rely on exploitation of our fellow human beings, whether we are buying fruit or pants. A lot of issues come up as people start discussing these issues, perhaps not the least of which is class barriers; being an ethical consumer is often presented as something that is extremely costly, and is thus out of reach for many people. On the other hand, acting like it’s not costly, like anyone can purchase, for example, Fair Trade Certified products, is simply disingenuous and does nobody any good.

What I don’t see a lot of discussion about is that sometimes, these systems of exploitation are impossible to escape. Take produce, something produced in the United States with highly questionable labour practices. We accept that conventional agriculture often uses people who work in unsafe conditions for low wages, and that many of these people are undocumented immigrants who are in a poor position to fight for their rights as labourers. What we don’t talk about is the available alternatives; we have to eat produce to live, so the solution isn’t to just stop buying it.

Organic? Where in the organic standards are labour practices covered? Organic standards focus on the growing conditions for the food, not the working conditions for the labourers. Buying organic doesn’t address the labour issue. Fair Trade? How much produce can you find in your grocery store that is certified? Farmers’ markets? Yes, maybe. But don’t think that meeting someone at a farmers’ market means that you have met your farmer, or that the food you purchase there is necessarily grown in humane working conditions. Big agriculture has caught on to the phenomenon, for one thing, and large growers are now represented at markets, and even small farms use exploited labour, because it’s what is available, and what they need to use to stay competitive.

What I would love to see is an independent certification program for ethical labour practices. Companies could apply into the program, be audited and repeatedly rechecked by third parties, and be certified, allowing consumers to actively seek out and purchase products made with fair labour. Would these products be more expensive? They absolutely would, and that means that they would not be accessible to all people. People with the economic power, however, could choose how to allocate their funds, and over time, perhaps public opinion could create such a demand for it that prices would start to drop because everyone would be doing it.

Animal rights activists successfully lobbied for more humane conditions in chicken farms used by fast food manufacturers. They did so by targeting major companies, knowing that if they could get one to do it, others would follow to stay competitive. The same tactics are being used, to some extent, by labour activists, trying to get companies to commit to more ethical labour practices, but something isn’t working. I think we need to ask ourselves why we can get better conditions for chickens, and not for human beings; surely public pressure should be easy to bring to bear on this issue. Surely we don’t want people to continue to work in exploitative, abusive, dangerous conditions, right?

There’s a reason we have come to view certain classes of people as disposable commodities in our culture, and there’s a reason a culture of exploitative labour has been allowed to persist, to varying degrees, for centuries. What’s frustrating for me, as a consumer, is that this system is effectively impossible to escape. I do not want to spend money on things produced with the labour of people who are exploited, but I am presented with no viable alternatives; there is no ethical choice I can make, in many cases, because all of the alternatives involve exploitation. I can’t vote with my wallet because there are no good options on the ticket.

This thought, I think, makes people uncomfortable. They want to tell people to just try a little harder because that will make them feel less like they are trapped inside a shitty system with no way out. It’s an unpleasant thought, to realise that in some cases, there really are no alternatives to using exploited labour, or that those alternatives are extremely hard. Not everyone can grow food at home, can afford to spent considerable time and effort researching the source of products, especially things like textiles that go through multiple stages of manufacture, from growing in the fields to weaving or knitting cloth to being assembled into clothing.

But maybe, if we started talking about the lack of alternatives, we could start putting more pressure to bear on the people who are currently dictating the market. What if the animal rights campaigns were adapted and mimicked for human rights? If we could get one company, one Wendy’s or Burger King, to commit to using ethical labour at every stage of the supply chain and to agree to be audited by a neutral third party, it would make a tremendous difference. That company would set a model other companies would have to match to maintain market share, and their work on developing an auditing process for maintaining supply chain integrity could be used by other companies, large and small, to enact their own ethical labour policies.

I’m not saying no one has thought of this, or that it wouldn’t be difficult, but I think I would prefer this to lecturing people about how they need to be more ethical consumers and how they just need to try a little harder to do that. Why not reverse things, and instead of placing the burden on consumers, place the burden on producers? Force producers to work more ethically to provide consumers with the options they need to make ethical buying choices?