The death toll from last week's collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory continues to climb, with more than 600 people killed according to most recent reports. A harsh spotlight has been shone on the frequently appalling conditions in which millions work, either willingly or unwillingly.
According to the International Labor Organization, 21 million people were victims of forced labor in 2012 alone, and there are currently more than 200 million child laborers across the world. The clothes on our back, the gold and gems around our necks and fingers, the electronic devices in our hands — all are likely the work of one or many forced and/or child laborers.
In a widely lauded move, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently published a free online resource for multinational corporations to reduce forced and/or child labor. With its "eight steps to an effective social compliance system," the DOL's "Toolkit for Responsible Businesses" provides suggestions for more ethically sound business practices.
Not surprisingly, the DOL toolkit is based on the premise that foreign investment is an incontrovertible boon for developing countries. Business leaders are encouraged to pat themselves on the collective back, as if the act of foreign investment was not a calculated financial decision but an act of selfless altruism.
As the toolkit says, "through investment and job creation, you are already contributing to economic growth and better livelihoods for workers in the countries where you source." In the light of the Bangladesh collapse, can the heads of Primark or Benetton, whose clothes were made at the death-trap factory, agree with this statement?
Similarly, the toolkit includes some feel-good examples of American multinationals' successes in corporate social responsibility programs. But there is no discussion of the horror stories, the cautionary tales, about why this toolkit is necessary in the first place. For example, a section about how the Shell Corporation effectively destroyed the ecosystem of the Niger Delta while being complicit in government human rights abuses might be relevant. Even an historical lesson on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in our own country might not go amiss.
The DOL toolkit also tiptoes around any issues of social justice. The "What are the Root Causes of Child Labor and Forced Labor?" section describes conditions of profound structural violence in a wholly passive voice. There is no reference or even allusion to how the investment of multinational companies and U.S. foreign policy itself often bolsters or directly contributes to authoritarian regimes, government corruption, gender inequality, and environmental degradation.
Moreover, the toolkit's advice can sometimes seem willingly naïve, given the politically repressive contexts of many countries. The toolkit's subsequent section, "Addressing the Root Causes of Child Labor and Forced Labor" offers ideas including "building government capacity" and "supporting labor unions." The latter is the closest that the toolkit comes to making a political statement, as it supports the development of civil society and freedom of expression, including of opposing views.
One must ask, thought: how does this recommendation square with the flow of aid from the U.S. to governments that squash free speech and muzzle opposition groups, such as (but not limited to) Bahrain, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda? How can the U.S. federal government advocate private investment in local civil society creation, while simultaneously supporting the repressive governments that render civil society organizations obsolete or impotent?
In one section, the DOL toolkit declares, "the responsibility for protecting human rights rests with governments, both individually and working collectively in the international system." In this spirit, the U.S. needs to rethink its streams of aid to repressive regimes that violate human rights. With ethical foreign aid distribution, the U.S. government can then apply meaningful pressure on multinational corporations to end forced and child labor.