Free Trade, With Truly Free People

March 12, 2007
Al Meyerhoff
Reprinted from The Philadelphia Inquirer

Saipan is a small island in the West Pacific, site of the capital of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. For decades on Saipan, there was a system of bonded labor in sweatshops generating billions of dollars in sales of "Made in the U.S.A." clothing. Tens of thousands of indentured workers, primarily women from mainland China, were housed in dilapidated barracks and worked six- or seven-day weeks for subsistence wages.

The settlement of a human-rights case eventually ended these flagrant violations of law on Saipan. But, now, as China free trade opens, Saipan's factories are closing. Legislation introduced recently in Congress increases the U.S. minimum wage - including, for the first time, in Saipan. But that will be cold comfort for thousands of garment workers, many now being abandoned by factory owners fleeing the island.

As the American industrial base continues to erode (in the past decade, some 200,000 U.S. textile jobs disappeared), more and more consumer goods are manufactured by foreign labor, often under conditions of slavery, indentured servitude, and child labor. In a very real sense, our cheap prices and high quality of life are the result of globalized exploitation. Because while we export our jobs, our values stay at home.

For example, many of our consumer products come from the sweat and toil of 250 million debt-bonded child laborers worldwide. Some were sold into slavery; others are trafficked around the world. They assemble computers and mine gold, harvest food and make clothing, cut lumber and man fishing boats, produce silk and weave rugs. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (a treaty ratified by 192 nations, all but Somalia and the United States) prohibits such treatment, of course - but it is honored in the breach. The increasing globalized demand for cheap, readily available goods is creating an increasing globalized demand for cheap, readily available children.

And not just children. There are today at least 27 million slaves held by violence, against their will, for the purpose of exploitation. Modern-day slavery takes many forms: physical abduction, serfdom and prison slavery; at least four million slaves are traded annually. "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all forms" - so reads the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, slaves make our toys and our chocolate bars.

Our Founding Fathers did not intend this. The first legislative act of the new republic, the Alien Tort Claims Act, prevented "crimes against all mankind," opening U.S. courts to aliens seeking relief "for acts committed in violation of the law of nations."

Dormant for 200 years, the act was used in the 1980s, first against governments (for crimes such as murder and torture) and more recently against transnational corporations - such as in the Saipan sweatshop litigation. Many Alien Tort cases have not fared well, however, dismissed on sovereign immunity or procedural grounds. And a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision appears to limit the act to only the most heinous human-rights violations. In the best of times, only so much can be accomplished for human rights through litigation.

So here's another idea: Let the market work, a fully and accurately informed market, something like the "right to know" approach that already has improved environmental protection. California mandates labels for substances that cause cancer or birth defects. The Clean Air Act warns local residents about toxic air pollutants. "Green seals" are turning up on various consumer goods. If we can warn you about the chemical in your nail polish, tell you what's in your air, inform you that your desk chair came from rainforest, if we can make tuna "dolphin free," then why not tell consumers about enslaved kids? Polls indicate that many consumers would simply not buy a product made by slaves.

Who are we to impose our values on the rest of the world? We are the consumers whose insatiable demand is creating these jobs, and these abuses, that's who. That gives us the right - and the moral obligation - to act.

The Philadelphia Inquirer© January 26, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

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