The Diplomat has a good piece on the benefits and the problems with international labor monitoring systems. In short, Uzbekistan is a major cotton exporter, the world’s 5th largest. It also used a lot of forced child labor. Companies began boycotting Uzbek cotton until it eliminated child labor and asked the International Labour Organization to monitor. It was successful. But it also seems that the cotton growers and Uzbek government have instead rounded up gangs of forced adult labor to pick the cotton. That’s a lot harder for international monitors to see and given the harsh punishments given to those who tell the truth, the workers aren’t saying a word.
This is a good case to examine both the benefits and problems with international monitoring. First, this puts the lie to the idea that companies can’t do anything about their supply chains. It’s real simple here. The companies said we aren’t buying cotton from Uzbekistan if they use children. And the Uzbeks stopped using children. In other words, companies can enact almost whatever they want on their supply chains. If the companies wanted to ensure that factories didn’t collapse on workers, they could do so. In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, European companies are working toward this. American companies are almost all resisting because the fear of lawsuits and liability is more important than workers staying alive. So if the companies wanted to ensure that Uzbek cotton was in fact not only child-free but also forced-labor free, there are ways to do this. They could continue not buying Uzbek cotton unless it wasn’t just certified that they were child free, but it was positively certified that everyone was getting paid. If the onus was on the Uzbeks, and it very well could be, then you solve that problem. And companies and governments can solve all sorts of problems in their supply chains this way if they choose to. The fact that they occasionally choose to do so on child labor or slave labor shows put a lie to the claim that they can’t really do anything. They largely just choose not to.
But real reform so that workers live with dignity takes more than just a vague monitoring program. If the real goal is eliminating forced labor, replacing children with adults is a good way to get around a weak monitoring system that relies primarily on visuals rather than paperwork or meaningful inspections. As these things are constructed in the present, they are often too weak to make a difference. It’s still relatively easy for suppliers to get around whatever constrictions they face. That’s because the system ultimately does not really challenge the corporate buyers in any meaningful way. Make them legally liable for their purchases and you will see it change fast. That children have been largely forced from the Uzbek cotton fields is evidence that it can be done.