Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

10 Huge U.S. Brands Who Profit From What Americans Would Call Slave Labor

Would it surprise you if, at the bottom of your favorite brand’s supply chain, you find that the brand is heavily dependent upon using forced or child labor? Thankfully, more and more consumers are aware of such practices and making decisions about what to buy or boycott based on the human and environmental cost. The Internet provides plenty of documentation of worker abuse and petitions you can sign to help raise awareness of and combat such practices. The 10 U.S. brands named below, including the U.S. Department of Defense, currently profit from the abusive treatment of workers. Links to more detailed information and ways you can help are provided throughout. (Photo source: Mark Craemer)

  1. Apple

    Apple contracts factories in China to manufacture their products such as the iPhone and iPad. Foxconn Technology, China’s largest exporter and one of the nation’s biggest employers, owns several factories in the Southwestern city of Chengdu filled with workers assembling electronic products for Apple and other U.S.-based companies. The abuse of the people laboring in those factories, abuses that include excessive overtime, the employment of under-aged workers, and a disregard for workplace safety that has resulted in injuries and deaths, was recently and thoroughly reported by the New York Times. Apple has stepped up their process of inspecting and auditing the factories that are a part of their supply chain, publicly stating they will pressure companies like Foxconn to make any changes necessary for a safe workplace. But the fact is, Apple reaps huge profits from their use of cheap, unregulated labor. Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, says, "What’s morally repugnant in one country is accepted business practice in another, and companies take advantage of that."

  2. Nike

    The Nike brand has become, whether fairly or unfairly, synonymous with child labor. The 1996 Life magazine photo of a 12-year-old Pakistani boy sewing together a Nike soccer ball brought widespread attention to the issue, and pushed Nike to increase their efforts to raise wages and improve conditions for workers assembling their products. But unjust practices continue. Team Sweat, an international coalition of workers, consumers, and investors committed to ending Nike’s sweatshop practices, continues to report worker abuse in factories where Nike products are assembled.

  3. Motorola

    Coltan and cassiterite, so-called "conflict minerals," are used in the manufacturing of cell phones. Both of these natural resources are plentiful in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo. Profits from these minerals finance armed groups seeking to control the region through intimidation, violence, and mass rape. The actual mining is performed in brutal, inhumane conditions by workers, including children, who must risk their lives underground for hours at a time. U.S.-based Motorola is taking steps to prevent such practices in the mining of these minerals. But as Frank Poulsen, director of the 2010 documentary Blood in the Mobile, points out, "If you ask the phone companies where their suppliers get minerals from, none of them can guarantee that they aren’t buying conflict minerals from the Congo."

  4. Hershey’s

    Much of Hershey’s cocoa is sourced from West Africa, including the impoverished region of the Ivory Coast where forced and abusive child labor is common practice. UNICEF and other human rights groups report that children continue to be trafficked from nearby countries to work on these cocoa plantations. Yet Hershey has no system in place to investigate and confirm whether or not their suppliers are not involved in the exploitation of children. The February 2012 Super Bowl featured a jumbotron screen ad created by the International Labor Rights Forum that called out Hershey for ignoring child labor abuse.

  5. Forever 21

    The Republic of Uzbekistan, the third biggest exporter of cotton in the world, relies on children numbering in the thousands to harvest the country’s cotton. Children, some as young as 9 years old, who do not meet a daily work quota are beaten, threatened with detention, or told their school grades will suffer. Thankfully, more people are becoming aware of the plight of Uzbekistan’s child laborers. reports, "Some retailers … have already taken action to ban Uzbek cotton from their products." But the U.S. retail chain Forever 21 refuses to acknowledge a need to ban Uzbekistan’s cotton from its chain of suppliers.

  6. The U.S. Department of Defense

    Thanks in part to the privatization of prisons, incarceration rates in the U.S. have soared, creating a burden on taxpayers and, since large major U.S. companies are contracting the services of prisoner-workers, lost jobs and lowered wages are also a consequence. Labor inside a prison is easily exploited and cheap, generating huge profits for the hiring corporations. The U.S. Department of Defense, with the help of a corporation run by the Bureau of Prisons called UNICOR, contracts prisoners to manufacture electronic components for Patriot missiles, launchers for anti-tank missiles, and many, many other products, including uniforms, body armor, and goggles for use on battlefields around the world. The prisoner-worker’s rights are disregarded; they are a captive labor force. "This has been ongoing for decades," says Alex Friedmann, associate editor of Prison Legal News, who describes prison labor as part of a "confluence of similar interests" among politicians and corporations.

  7. Macy’s

    Gold mining, in addition to being one of the most polluting industries, is also often produced through forced and child labor. Miners of this particular resource across the world have attempted, sometimes at the risk of losing their lives, to unionize in order to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. The majority of gold is mined for jewelry, and Macy’s is the eighth largest retailer of jewelry in the United States. The non-profit environmental and human rights organization Earthworks has been campaigning aggressively for Macy’s to sign a pledge to commit to responsible sourcing. Eighty major retailers have signed the pledge, but Macy’s has not. “Macy’s customers deserve to know their holiday gifts don’t come with a legacy of water pollution or human rights abuses," says Payal Sampat, international campaigns director for Earthworks. "And right now, Macy’s can’t say that.”

  8. Wal-Mart Stores Inc

    Wal-Mart claims their company’s purpose is to "save people money so they can live better." OUR Walmart, a labor organization created by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, disagrees and is seeking to rally Walmart employees to ask for higher wages and better working conditions. In 2007, Human Rights Watch published a detailed report that claimed the company "stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus and actions." Wal-Mart argues that it has remained free of unions for the simple reason that its workers see no reason for them. However, Wal-Mart preys on their employees’ need for a job, any job, even one that doesn’t pay a living wage. "We work for a company that makes almost half a billion in profits a year," a Walmart employee is quoted as saying. "And employees can’t afford lunch." Wal-Mart actually reported $3.34 billion in profits in the third quarter of 2011. The quoted employee makes $10 an hour before taxes.

  9. The Tobacco Industry

    It’s ironic that North Carolina, a state whose politicians and lawmakers regularly espouse a hard line regarding illegal immigrants, is home to a profitable tobacco industry that depends on undocumented immigrants for labor. According to a recent report by the global relief organization Oxfam and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, these workers labor for hours in the hot sun without access to clean water or basic protective gear for preventing nicotine-related illnesses. Many live in overcrowded vermin-infested housing without working toilets or showers. And many aren’t even paid a minimum wage. RJ Reynolds, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, continues to refuse to meet with North Carolina’s tobacco farm workers to discuss ways working conditions can be made more humane.

  10. Chiquita

    Chiquita has a long history of violating workers’ rights. Chiquita’s suppliers in Guatemala have used intimidation, blackmail, and violence to repress banana farm workers for decades. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, since 2007, 43 union members and leaders have been murdered in Guatemala. Meanwhile, in Jamaica, when thousands of workers employed by Chiquita went on strike to demand fair treatment and safer working conditions, armed men shot and killed 40 of the striking workers. In December 2010, the International Labor Rights Forum named Chiquita, along with the aforementioned RJ Reyonds, as one of the worst companies of the year.