Slave-Made Goods by Country: A List from the Department of Labor

The Department of Labor has released a new report:
The Department of Labor's List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor. This government office has compiled a list of 122 goods from 58 countries which are produced using child labor, or slave labor, or both.

The PDF is 194 pages, but you'll only need the first 50. (The rest is basically footnotes, with one or more sources for every claim that a country uses child or slave labor for a particular good.) If you skip to page 37, you can look at the list sorted by item. Or, you can simply download this list of goods, and which countries produce them using child or slave labor. It's a short PDF. Take a look. You might even print this out, and keep it close by when you go shopping.

Source: Department of Labor

For instance, from where should one buy bricks? Apparently not Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, China, Ecuador, India, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Peru, Uganda, or Colombia. All but one of these countries use child labor, and six use slave labor.

Slave labor. To make bricks. In 2009. No word yet on the forecast for the next round of plagues.

From the foreword (with emphasis added):

As a nation and as members of the global community, we reject the proposition that it is acceptable to pursue economic gain through the forced labor of other human beings or the exploitation of children in the workplace. However, we are aware that these problems remain widespread in today’s global economy. Indeed, we face these problems in our own country. The International Labor Organization estimates that over 12 million persons worldwide are working in some form of forced labor or bondage and that more than 200 million children are at work, many in hazardous forms of labor. The most vulnerable persons – including women, indigenous groups, and migrants – are the most likely to fall into these exploitive situations and the current global economic crisis has only exacerbated their vulnerability.

Most Americans and most consumers in the world market would not choose to purchase goods known to be produced by exploited children or forced laborers ­ at any price. Likewise, most American companies would prefer that their global suppliers respect workers’ and children’s fundamental rights and provide their employees with working conditions that meet acceptable local standards. However, to translate these values and preferences into day­-to­-day purchasing decisions, firms and consumers need reliable information about the labor conditions under which goods are produced. In 2005, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, directing the Secretary of Labor and the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) to compile “a list of goods that ILAB has reason to believe were produced using forced labor or child labor” in order to provide consumers and firms with this type of information.

This report presents that list of goods.

Using the List

On page 44, we find that, actually, this list is not complete:

A country’s absence from the above List does not necessarily indicate that child labor and/or forced labor are not occurring in the production of goods in that country. Data can be unavailable for various reasons including that it is not collected by the government or others, or is intentionally suppressed by the government.

At first glance, this suggests that this list could be counter-productive. If I assume a country not on the list is a safe buy, reality may be that that government is just better at suppressing the reports.

However, they have managed to find data on countries under severely repressive governments, such as China. They're also clear on which countries for which they couldn't find enough data, either from the goverment itself or from watchdog groups, to make statements. These include Belarus, Gabon, Guyana, South Africa, Togo, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Also, a country with many appearances may actually be a country with better reporting in place. For instance, Argentina appears many times, but if you want to buy gravel, it doesn't seem to be a problem in Argentina. In that case, Argentina may be a safer choice, since there's clearly a great deal of reporting in that country.

It is true that avoiding an entire country will punish the employers in that country who do respect their employees. Clearly, we need more information here. On the other hand, if this is the best information we have, it may be best to act on it. The most effective pressure on these slavedrivers is likely to come two places: within their own country, and from the multinational corporate buyers. If consumers take this list seriously, both will take notice. Both will spend the extra time and money to give us more detailed information.

Another interesting fact:

ILAB’s Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking has also provided more than $720 million in funding for projects to combat these practices in over 80 countries.

That's a lot of money. I'd like to find a report on how that's going. But the thrust of the report remains quite distributist: we ordinary people can help end these atrocities by what we buy.

It is my strong hope that consumers, firms, governments, labor unions and other stakeholders will use this information to translate their economic power into a force for good that ultimately will eliminate exploitive child labor and forced labor.

Here's a good first step. Freeze subsidies to any corporation found purchasing from a sweatshop. Sounds obvious, doesn't it?

In the meantime, I'm putting that list in the car.

Full report: The Department of Labor's List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.

List of goods, and which countries produce them using child or slave labor.


Donald Goodman Monday, September 14, 2009 at 11:15:00 AM CDT  


Thanks, Bill! My family, for one, will make use of this list (how, as yet I'm not sure). It's important for distributists to have this information at their disposal to act upon. I'm glad the Review is helping to distribute it.

Praise be to Christ the King!

Donald Goodman Monday, September 14, 2009 at 11:19:00 AM CDT  


It occurs to me, though, that the best way to avoid buying products produced by child or slave labor is to buy products produced *in America*. At least for Americans; others, insert your country here, if appropriate.

American goods can carry other concerns we need to be aware of, of course, but this just isn't one of them.

Praise be to Christ the King!

Matthew Wade Monday, September 14, 2009 at 1:28:00 PM CDT  

I'm a little confused by this list. Would I be wrong in assuming that there might be two or three different companies producing bricks in Afghanistan? Or that coffee from Nicaragua is always produced by child labor? I'm not denouncing this list, but it seems that product type, instead of manufacturer, is a bit of a generalization in itself.

Matthew Wade


Anonymous,  Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 8:34:00 AM CDT  

It is interesting that "buy American" was a big thing in 1970's and 80's, but is largely not discussed well corporate media has worked, affects of Hudge and Gudge.....!!

True, that is a better solution and closer to Distributist model than "buy 3rd world"

P.M.Lawrence Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 10:14:00 PM CDT  

"Here's a good first step. Freeze subsidies to any corporation found purchasing from a sweatshop. Sounds obvious, doesn't it?"

Only, it isn't always true. Sometimes - not often - the vulgar libertarian argument that these jobs are better than no jobs, a least worst alternative, is actually correct. What that argument leaves as an unstated and unchecked assumption is that providing the jobs has nothing to do with depriving people of better alternatives. With cash crop exports, particularly coffee, cotton, etc. which use a lot of water for processing and/or growing, the activity takes resources away from local production of staples, e.g. water and subsistence farming land, etc. With the typical bad governance of those countries, sweatshop work gives kleptocrats an incentive to take away people's independent resources; buying those goods then "feeds the beast". But for the few countries with sweatshops where that isn't happening, it can be better for people to have those jobs than none - because that "none" isn't being thrust upon them by wider arrangements fed by buying the products, and it doesn't inherently reduce the local availability of staples. On the other hand, "fair trade" is harmful that way (particularly growing and exporting coffee, cotton, etc., what with their water use), even in countries with good governance, because that not only helps the growers, it further marginalises the poor people at the bottom of the heap in those countries because they aren't cash crop growers but people struggling to survive while resources are being diverted from growing staples into "fair trade" cash crops for export - it does inherently reduce the local availability of staples.

So there are a lot of other things to look into. That advice should be taken as a presumption, but it should be checked to see if it is sound, on a case by case basis.

Donald Goodman Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 8:53:00 AM CDT  


P. M. Lawrence:

Good points. The bottom line, of course, comes down again to the constant distributist principle of encouraging local production, both here and in these poor countries. Cotton grows stupendously in America; indeed, it's native to America and became widespread due to its cultivation here. Why are we importing it, and depriving other countries of labor that could better be used providing for their own well-being?

It would be better for both us and for them if these things weren't the subjects of import and export, but of local production.

These poorer countries should do similarly; produce primarily for their own use, and ensure that their workers are at least in part owners. Then we'd all be better off.

Praise be to Christ the King!

P.M.Lawrence Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 3:02:00 AM CDT  

"Cotton grows stupendously in America; indeed, it's native to America and became widespread due to its cultivation here".

Er... not precisely. It is found in many continents and is not particularly an American plant, it became widespread because of its use in India which led to availability elsewhere once trade with Europe opened up (see the derivation of the word "calico"), and only later did American production have an effect - making it cheap.

"These poorer countries should do similarly... ensure that their workers are at least in part owners. Then we'd all be better off."

No. That embodies just precisely the problem at the heart of "fair trade" when that goes wrong: it further marginalises the poor, the people at the bottom of the heap. Just as "fair trade" only helps those who produce the export goods, so also giving part ownership to workers only helps those who have made it far enough up the ladder to be "workers". People in subsistence activities, or the very poor without either resources or paid work, end up worse off - because the gains are being secured to people who are a rung or two further up the ladder. It's only helpful when people are raised within reach of its benefits.

Septeus7,  Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 3:23:00 PM CDT  

Nice Find Bill and I'm going to see if and I get some other blogger to link to this post.

Bill Powell Monday, September 21, 2009 at 9:27:00 AM CDT  

Matthew Wade -- thanks for the comment. You're right that a list by manufacturer would be much more helpful. You can find this information sometimes with further research, for example at

But I still think this is a start. If you have a choice among products, you can choose a country with no evidence of child or slave labor.

Think about what will happen if many people make these choices. Say people avoid all bricks made in Afghanistan, in lieu of more detailed info. If you're a good brick-making company in Afghanistan, you're going to put pressure on your government to crack down on your competitors. Or you'll clearly label your products sweatshop-free. In short, you'll make the effort to inform consumers that you don't use slave labor. That's business.

We need to use the information we do have to put pressure on companies to avoid these crimes. We can't keep waiting for perfect information, or no one will ever bother to provide it.

It is not "unfair" to avoid whole countries for now if, after all, you don't have an obligation to support those businesses in the first place. If they care about our business, they'll start to label their products appropriately, or put pressure on abusers in their country, or both.

Bill Powell Monday, September 21, 2009 at 9:33:00 AM CDT  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Powell Monday, September 21, 2009 at 9:34:00 AM CDT  

P.M. Lawrence --

I appreciate your comment, but I'm not sure what your final recommendation is. In this article, I suggest that our government should not give tax money to a business which contracts work to sweatshops. Even if sweatshops do sometimes have the side effect of helping poor people avoid starvation, can't you think of a better way to use tax money to help these same people?

America does not rule the world, and a no-tolerance policy from us on sweatshops would not end these abuses. But it would certainly help.

P.M.Lawrence Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 8:23:00 PM CDT  

BP, I was pointing out that that policy suggestion is not a "good first step", because it would make some people worse off. The first step should be earlier, picking out the times where that wouldn't happen (so it would help to do it just like that) and preparing other support for the times where it would and putting that in place before applying that policy.

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