Number of companies pledging to avoid Uzbek cotton Zooms past 100

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The Cotton Campaign recently passed an important milestone in the fight to protect children in Uzbekistan from forced child labor: more than 100 companies have signed a pledge to try to avoid purchasing Uzbek cotton. Consumers will recognize a lot of the names on the list—Levis Strauss, Fruit of the Loom, GAP, Ann Taylor, Wal-Mart—comprising many of the largest apparel companies in the world. To date, 124 companies have signed the pledge.

Each fall, the country of Uzbekistan compels hundreds of thousands of school children to leave their classrooms and perform back-breaking labor harvesting cotton. The children typically earn only pennies for their work and experience harsh, uncomfortable conditions. In many countries of the world cotton is harvested with machinery, but in Uzbekistan using school children, college students and adults forced into labor has proven to be a cheap solution to harvest needs and picking by hand results in cotton that can draw top prices. Ruled by a totalitarian dictator, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan is the only country in the world whose government is compelling the widespread use of child labor for non-military purposes.

For years, the members of the Cotton Campaign, including the National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, have applied pressure on companies that use cotton to eliminate their use of Uzbek cotton until Uzbek leaders allows the International Labour Organization to monitor the cotton harvest and until Uzbekistan eliminates exploitative child labor and forced adult labor from the harvest.

According to reports coming out of Uzbekistan during this fall’s harvest, more schools have remained open this year and the use of child labor has fallen somewhat. Apparently, Uzbekistan has allowed some younger children to focus on their studies by turning to increased forced labor of older kids in the 15- to 19-year-old range. Advocates see this as a sign that pressure is beginning to work. And having 100 companies sign the pledge to avoid Uzbek cotton sends a powerful message to Uzbekistan: you must do more to eliminate the use of forced labor and child labor and you must let the ILO monitor your next cotton harvest.

One obstacle that companies face who have signed the pledge is ensuring that no cotton actually enters their supply stream—despite their intentions to keep it out. Advocates and companies are working to make certain that the pledge is meaningful and that cotton does not pass through so many middlemen that its country of origin is no longer recognizable.

NCL and the Child Labor Coalition encourage consumers to look at the list of companies that have signed the pledge and if their favorite company is not yet on the list, let it know that it should be.

For more information about child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, please visit the Cotton Campaign here. Readers may view a video of children working in the fields here.

SEC adopts reporting rule to help with human rights issues

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The primary mission of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is to protect investors from unfair or unscrupulous practices. Last week, however, the SEC did something remarkable: It agreed to adopt a rule with the goal of diminishing the human rights consequences of business practices.

The SEC voted by a narrow 3-2 margin to require companies that use so-called “conflict minerals”—metals like gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten which end up in a wide array of products like cell phones, computers and other electronic devices—to file reports about the use of minerals that have been fueling violent conflict and abetting widespread social abuses like the use of child soldiers. The rules were mandated under section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and targeted towards minerals extrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighboring countries.

Although two commissioners debated whether the SEC’s core mission of protecting investors should be expanded in this way, they agreed that conflict in the DRC and neighboring countries is a pressing problem and that warring groups are using profits from mineral extraction to engage in armed conflict and a wide variety of human rights abuses. Commissioners Troy Paredes and Daniel Gallagher voted against adopting the rule, arguing that there was no clear evidence that the reporting requirement would help solve civil rights abuses and that the SEC had no jurisdiction to tackle human rights problems. Gallagher complained that the SEC’s proposed rule had no exemptions for small businesses and said the reporting requirements might be overly burdensome.

SEC chair Mary Schapiro joined  commissioners Luis Aguilar and Elise Walter in voting for adopting the reporting rule. The three commissioners were quick to point out that the SEC was under a congressional mandate to implement the provisions and that the humanitarian crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is severe and required action.

The nonprofit community in general is pleased with the adoption of the reporting requirement, although some groups complained that the rules could be tougher and shouldn’t allow companies to list the origins of their mineral use as “indeterminable” for a two- to four-year period.

The hope is that by making the use of “conflict minerals” transparent, companies will be under pressure from stock holders and the public to seek “cleaner” minerals that are not tied to armed conflict or abuses. At the National Consumers League, we applaud this expansion of SEC’s role. It is our hope that supply chain transparency will help move the region’s intractable problems toward solutions and nudge war-torn countries like the DRC towards greater peacefulness. As a co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, NCL has long worked for the protection of children from military exploitation and the use of child soldiers in this region has been endemic for years.

At the same hearing on Wednesday, August 22nd, the commissioners voted by a 2-1 margin (with two commissioners recusing themselves) to require companies extracting resources—like fossil fuels and minerals–to report payments of $100,000 or more to foreign governments. NCL joins the nonprofit community in hailing this rule as an important step toward greater supply chain transparency.

Liberia: Are foreign corporations helping or hurting?

By Brianne Pitts, NCL public policy intern

Recently, members of the nonprofit community gathered in Washington, DC to attend a forum that examined the current social, economical, and political conditions in the West African nation of Liberia. After two decades of instability and two civil wars that killed 250,000 people, Liberia has begun the process of picking up the pieces of its shattered nation, which is no easy task: Six in seven Liberians live in dire poverty. Fortunately, the country, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, has abundant natural resources. With the restructuring of Liberian government to a unitary constitutional republic led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected head of state and a Harvard-trained economist, it seems as if these resources could bring some needed revenues into the country.

With the return of political and economical stability, however, there is a rising concern over worker’s rights for Liberians. There has been a steady and growing increase in land ownership and the extraction of Liberia’s natural resources by U.S. companies like Chevron, Firestone, and other conglomerates.

As Western outsiders acquire more land, Liberians already living on the land are being pushed from their homes. Village lines have had to be redrawn due to land grabbing. Different communities have been squeezed together and forced to share increasingly limited resources left behind by the corporations.

Large-scale extraction of the land has caused rivers and streams to become polluted, simultaneously wiping out the food and water sources as well as possible trade opportunities for local families.

A major problem with the presence of big business in Liberia is the corporation’s failure to invest in the Liberian people. Alfred Brownell, a Liberian lawyer, told event participants that “the (American) Firestone Corporation has been present in Liberia for over 80 years, and still to this day there is not a single person of Liberian descent in a position of power within that company.”

Liberian workers are relegated to labor-intensive, menial, low-paying jobs. If companies like Firestone or Chevron proceed to invest only in the land without investing in the people, and provide wealth for themselves but not the Liberians, then the American-Liberian relationship will continue to be exploitative. Consumers should hold big corporations accountable for how they produce their products and the devastation they leave behind. American corporations must be held to a high standard when it comes to extracting resources from the world’s poorest nations.

New State Department report suggests the global enormity of trafficking

By Steven Dorshkind, NCL public policy intern

The State Department released a new update to its annual Trafficking in Persons Report recently, and the results are shocking. The report states that approximately 27 million people are victims of human trafficking globally. This report also evaluates the countries of the world and places them into four different tiers depending upon the level of commitment and action the individual government have shown to combat trafficking.

Trafficking may take many guises: commercial sexual exploitation, and prostitution of minors, debt bondage and forced labor.

Of the 27 million victims of human trafficking, 55 percent are women and girls who make up 98 percent of the sex trafficking industry. These women and girls can be moved from their home, lured by traffickers by promises of a better life. Once far from home, they often find themselves trapped with no help in sight.

The State Department’s tier system is divided into four components, the First, Second, Second Watch List ,and Third Tier. The First Tier designates countries in which some trafficking may exist, but the government is very proactive in dealing with problem and the country meets the minimum requirements set up by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The Second Tier consists of countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into full compliance. The Second Watch List has countries that do not meet the minimum standards and the country has not provided significant evidence that measures are being taken to comply with the standards. The Third Tier has countries that do not comply with the TVPA’s standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

Thirty three countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, all received First Tier ratings. Ninety four countries, including Albania, Greece, Hong Kong, and Pakistan all received Second Tier ratings. Forty two countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and China, received Second Watch List Tier ratings, and sixteen countries received a Third Tier rating, including; Algeria, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Kuwait, Libya, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Receiving a Third Tier ranking on this report comes with the threat of sanctions: the withdrawal of non-humanitarian and non-trade related forces and assistance, and removal of funding for government employees’ participation in educational and cultural exchange programs, and opposition from the US toward trade and certain development related assistance, from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Many consumer and human rights advocates believe that Uzbekistan should be moved down to the Third Tier because of their blatant disregard for human rights and a lack of effort in trying to meet the minimum standards set up by the TVPA. The groups have written a letter and sent it to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking the State Department to lower the Uzbek government standing from Second Watch List, to the Third Tier. Uzbekistan refuses to allow the International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the harvesting of cotton, and therefore an accurate read of how the cotton is harvested cannot be obtained, and many charge that child labor is rampant. The National Consumers League believes this warrants a Third Tier rating, but the United States government has yet to lower the ranking of Uzbekistan.

The ranking of 42 countries has changed from 2011 to 2012. Fifteen countries were lowered in the rankings, and 27 were raised. Countries moved from First Tier to Second Tier are Nigeria and Portugal. Countries moved from Second Tier to Second Watch List are; Bahrain, Djibouti, Jamaica, Kenya, Macau, Malawi, Namibia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and Syria. The country moved from Second Watch List to the Third Tier was Suriname.

The new report also speaks to the measures that governments can put into place to help ensure the end of human trafficking in their own country. One problem noted by report authors: states that some countries have such strict rules against illegal immigration the victim of trafficking is treated as an illegal alien and tried as a criminal. The report asks for further in-depth study of people found in areas that are considered high risk trafficking zones, suggesting that the police and first-responders to an area must be better trained to identify a trafficked person. This skill is vital to ensure that those who are victims of human trafficking are not merely lumped together with the criminals and treated unjustly. The report puts a large focus on protecting victims.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Over the coming months we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln announced on September 22, 1862 and issued by Executive Order on January 1, 1863.” The idea that slavery is only in the past must be cast out, and the world needs to see that slavery exists in the modern-day and age. Twenty-seven million people are modern slaves who do not enjoy basic human rights and guarantees, they have been pushed to extremes with little food or rest, and they need to be helped. We cannot rest until all of those who are enslaved are freed.

ILO estimate: 21 million experienced forced labor during 10-year period

By Steven Dorshkind, NCL public policy intern

Steven Dorshkind, a child labor intern at the NCL this summer, is a junior at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where he is studying politics and history. Steven is currently studying at The George Washington University in the Semester in Washington Politics, which made it possible for him to get this internship.

Slavery seems like a relic of the past, but unfortunately, millions of people are still enduring slave-like conditions. The International Labour Organization (ILO) released a report this month that estimates that 20.9 million people experienced forced labor in the period of 2002-2011. Sadly, about one in four forced labor victims or about 5.5 million individuals are children.

The ILO estimated in 2005 that about 12.3 million persons were in forced labor. A new survey methodology led to the sizable jump in the number of forced labor victims, which the ILO believes is a much more accurate estimate than the 2005 figure. The term forced labor refers to all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the individual has not offered himself voluntarily.

The private sector is responsible for 90 percent of all forced labor, the rest is forced labor caused by governments, including prison labor and forced military service. The private sector forced labor is divided into sexual and labor exploitation. Of all the people exploited for labor, about 44 percent are moved internally or internationally, and the rest are forced into labor in their place of origin or residence. Those who are moved internally are mainly exploited for sexual reasons; 98 percent are women. These women are usually taken from their homes and families and brought to unfamiliar areas where they are forced to perform sexual acts for strangers – sometimes for years.

The highest incidence of forced labor occurred in Central and South Eastern Europe (non-European Union (EU)) at 4.2 individuals per thousand, Africa at 4.0, the Middle East at 3.4, Asia and the Pacific at 3.3, Latin America and the Caribbean at 3.1, and Developed Economies and EU nations at 1.5. Of these, 74 percent of people are 18 years and older, and of those 55 percent are women and girls, some 11.4 million, while 45 percent are men and boys (about 9.5 million).

The average period of time that victims spend in forced labor, in reported cases, is approximately 18 months. Unfortunately, many people serve in forced labor for a great deal longer, some reported cases have gone as far as six to ten years. Most of these reported cases with long durations end due to some form of intervention. By estimating the amount of time that an unreported case persists, the ILO estimates that the average unreported case of forced labor lasts about 29.4 months, or just about two and a half years.

The sickening truth is that modern-day slavery is still out there, and it is destroying the lives of millions of people. To understand the magnitude of the phenomenon, one must imagine a population similar to New York State’s – a forced labor site where the entire population is coerced to perform labor and all the inhabitants have their basic human rights and freedoms erased. The magnitude of this problem becomes evident, and the need for a solution becomes manifest. One hopes that the ILO forced labor estimate will create the will needed to address this vexing problem.

Reporting from Brussels: TACD bridging Atlantic on consumer issues

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

I recently spent three days with colleagues in Brussels attending a meeting of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), forum formed a dozen years ago by consumer advocates in America and Europe. The forum is intended to bring together US and EU consumer organizations to provide a consumer perspective and input to government officials on issues as diverse as product safety, privacy, food safety, financial services, and intellectual property. There’s a Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue that has a powerful voice at the European Union meetings – the TACD provides a critical counterweight to that as well.

We met with the US Ambassador to Brussels William Kennard and Commissioner Dalli from the European Union for health and safety – they shared their agenda, and we shared ours. But equally important is the cross-fertilization of ideas that comes from hearing what our European colleagues are working on – their successes, their failures (yes, those are important too!), and what work we can do together.

Last night over a glass of Jupiler, the Belgian Budweiser, a German colleague and I discussed the possibility of taking NCL’s work on table saw safety to Germany and perhaps Denmark. The German consumer groups work closely with the trade unions, many of whose members use table saws as they build homes or office buildings in Germany’s booming economy.

The consumer voice is critical – we represent the interests of many millions of consumers in the United States and Europe. We owe a debt of gratitude to American colleagues like Rhoda Karpatkin, the visionary former head of Consumers Union, and Jamie Love, whose work on intellectual property is legendary. They took this idea of having consumers on either side of the Atlantic meet and collaborate and built it into a thriving TACD.

Hearing examines bill to help teen sex trafficking victims

By Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition

It started with an innocuous trip to the mall. A woman in her late 20s approached Natasha, a pretty 19-year-old-teenager, and suggested that she consider a job as a make-up artist. The job involved good money and travel. Natasha was interested. She wasn’t sure she was ready for college, so she figured she’d check out the opportunity. Natasha went to high-rise office building in San Francisco to see the company first hand. There were young people everywhere learning how to apply make-up. Everything looked legitimate. Everyone she met was nice. She went home and convinced her parents, who despite deep reservations, to let her take the job.

On her first day, she was having lunch with her new bosses and she began to feel that something was wrong. The feeling grew. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and made a beeline for her car. When she got to it, one of the bosses grabbed her and kidnapped her.

The next year of Natasha’s life was a living hell. The make-up job was a ruse for a prostitution ring. On one of her first days, her pimp drove her to the school that her little brother attended and told her if she wasn’t compliant—if she ever tried to leave—they would kill the boy. The young girl felt completely trapped.

Natasha—now known as Natasha Herzig—told her compelling story before a packed briefing room in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 16. The briefing’s purpose was to bring attention to the problem of sex trafficking in the U.S. and to garner support for a bill, the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act (see summary), reintroduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

The bill, S. 596, would aid victims of sex trafficking and prosecute sex traffickers who exploit underage girls and force them into prostitution. The legislation calls for setting up a six-state pilot program to help law enforcement agencies go after pimps and traffickers. It would also create shelters, provide treatment, counseling and legal assistance for the victims. The legislation passed the Senate and House of Representatives but in a nip-and-tuck-race was not enacted before the congressional session ended. Senator and Senator Cornyn said they are determined to see it pass in the current session. The companion bill will soon be introduced in the House of Representatives.

According to estimates by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an estimated 100,000 minors—girls and boys—are trafficked in the U.S. each year for sexual purposes. Not all victims are lured away from happy homes like Natasha, who was an honor roll student in an upper-middle class home. Many are runaways who flee dysfunctional homes, thinking the streets will be more tolerable. Some of these children are fleeing sexual predators in their own families.

Academy Award-winning actress and advocate Mira Sorvino urged Americans and law enforcement officials to see this issue in its true light. “All teen prostitution is trafficking,” she said. Yet, she explained, in many localities, “police are still arresting the victims.”

Sorvino noted that when an adult has sex with a minor they may be sentenced to years in jail, but if money is involved, the buyers of sex typically do no jail time. They might face a small fine or be ordered to take a sensitivity workshop. The consequences need to be much tougher, argued Sorvino.

Often the police and male clients tend to think of prostitution as a victimless crime, but many of the trafficked girls are minors who did not enter prostitution willingly or were manipulated into it. The reality is that the young prostitutes have often been broken down psychologically by rapes, beatings, and threats and are not consensual sex partners, suggested Sorvino. The traffickers, she explained, “know exactly what to say” to manipulate the young girls, many of whom are as young as 12 and 13, into the business. She said they are adept at figuring out what the young girls’ hopes and dreams are and appealing to those aspirations.

The young girls are also broken down psychologically—essentially brainwashed. “There comes a point where you become what you know and you are loyal to your trafficker,” noted Natasha. “The brainwashing is a very tricky thing.”

Sorvino also said that the country’s broken foster care system is contributing to the trafficking problem. Too many children are being beaten and sexually abused and feel compelled to hit the streets. Each year, about 1.7 million runaways or “throwaways” leave their homes for the uncertainty of life on the streets. Both Senator Wyden and Sorvino noted the importance of changing the way the public views this issue.

Ernie Allen, the co-founder of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, noted that the sexualization of children in America at “younger and younger ages” is a large part of the problem. “We have created compliant victims who think this is how they are supposed to act,” he noted. “We have got to attack demand,” said Allen, who explained that the fundamental problem is that too many adults want to have sex with kids. “It’s time to address real societal change.”

Sorvino praised the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” Campaign recently launched by fellow actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. The campaign hopes to reduce the demand for sexual services from minors.

Sorvino also noted that the Internet is making it much too easy for prostitution to flourish and “has to be addressed.”

Ernie Allen agreed that the Internet is a big part of the problem. He noted the successful effort to get the Internet site Craig’s List to stop selling sex ads, but other sites are still doing business, he said.

The amount of money that can be made from sex trafficking is enormous. Senator Wyden noted that criminals who used to traffick drugs and engage in other criminal activities are moving over to sex trafficking because it’s easier. Allen explained that much of the trafficking of teen prostitutes is “organized crime” with traffickers moving teens from city to city to meet demand.

Natasha escaped from her trafficker 10 years ago. A friend and fellow underage prostitute was being beaten so severely that Natasha feared the friend would die. She ended up calling a friend for help. Eventually the authorities became involved and Natasha was free. However, the psychological trauma she suffered continued to haunt her for years. “I had a very long and dark journey to get to where I am today.”

Natasha is now happily married with a child. She works as a victims’ rights advocate and law enforcement trainer. The lack of resources 10 years ago made it very difficult for girls like her to escape their sexual slavery, and she wants to help young girls and women avoid what she went through. She urged the briefing audience attendees to “please, please fight for this [bill].”

Doug Justus, a 29-year-veteran of the Portland, Oregon police force and the former head of Portland’s Police Bureau’s vice unit, noted that when he first started working on criminal cases involving the trafficking of teens, prosecutors would not take his cases. They saw prostitution as a victimless crime that the public did not care about. Justus participated in trafficking sensitivity training through the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which trained nearly 300,000 law enforcement officials, and it completely changed his outlook.

In the past, he had driven by teenage prostitutes without really understanding their plight. Now, he knew the young girls should be viewed as victims. He was then able to convince other law enforcement officers and district attorneys to go through similar training. Portland began prosecuting traffickers. Still, he noted, trafficking cases are enormously difficult to prosecute. He told the story of one 13-year-old girl, Emily, who was nearly beaten to death by her pimp. Justus eventually convinced Emily to testify. After her testimony, she vanished and Justus said that informants have said Emily was murdered by her trafficker. The job is the hardest he ever had as a policeman, said Justus. “It kills you—you can’t sleep at night,” he explained.

The lack of “safe houses” is a particular problem, said Justus, who noted that when Emily was first rescued after being beaten there was no where for her to go. She was eventually released and then beaten by another pimp. “It didn’t have to happen if we had a safe house,” noted Justus. “If we had a safe house, Emily would be alive today.”

Tina Frundt, a former teen trafficking victim, told hearing attendees that she escaped from her trafficker after he beat her and broke her arm. The police arrested her and put her in jail for a year.

Frundt had been adopted into a loving family at age 12, but a pedophile stalked her and helped her run away from her parents after an argument. By the time she was 13, she was working as a stripper and working as a prostitute at truck stops—although working is certainly not the right word because she wasn’t getting paid and she was routinely being victimized by adults.

There were few if any resources to help Frundt escape. Eventually, she decided that she had to help other young girls avoid being trafficked. Today, she operates Courtney’s House, a Washington, DC area shelter for victims, that has helped over 500 young people escape their traffickers and pimps. She also operates a hotline (888-261-3665), and she and her staff hit the streets between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m. to talk to runaways and prostitutes and let them know that there is an alternative.

Frundt noted that while most victims are women and are often trafficked at ages 11 and 12, boys are trafficked too. Most male victims, she said, are first trafficked at ages six to nine years old.

Members of the public interested in helping to pass S. 596 should call or write their Senators and urge them to sponsor the bill. Readers may also sign an online petition to support the legislation at Change.org.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives during the last congressional session and are expected to re-introduce in this session as well. According to the Polaris Project, 45 states—including Ohio this year—have criminalized sex and labor trafficking. The Massachusetts legislature is working on a trafficking bill. The Georgia State House of Representatives recently passed a sex trafficking bill. Minnesota is also considering a “Safe Harbor” bill that assists the victims of sexual trafficking. And the Hawaiian legislature is deliberating a bill as well.

If you know a child who is missing or in danger of exploitation, please call the 24-hour hotline for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).

Our Fragile Earth

By Jacob Markey, LifeSmarts Summer 2010 intern

The standard of living for most Americans is far better than even when my parents grew up in the 60s. With advances in industry, medicine, and technology, Americans live longer and have access to goods and information like never before. We can hop on a plane and travel across the world in less than a day and converse with people face-to-face who are thousands of miles away using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), a technology I enjoyed while studying abroad this past fall.

Globalization and industrialization have benefited Americans, but have come at a terrible cost to our planet. To power our cars, planes, and factories, we consume nearly 20 million barrels per day of oil. Combined with coal and natural gas, Americans rely on non-renewable sources for over 80% of our country’s energy needs. Using these energy sources pollutes the Earth. Together with the rapid industrialization of countries like China and India and the world’s continual population growth, a dangerous amount of tension is being placed on the Earth.

The consensus in the scientific community is that substantive change must happen. Many feel a failure to do so will alter the Earth in a plethora of irreversible ways, including an increase in temperature, the melting of the polar ice caps, and changes to ecosystems and agriculture around the world. The sad part is that even with drastic changes, much damage has already occurred.

The good news is that we can change our course! After scientists realized chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were the prime cause of the growing hole in the ozone layer, countries around the world signed the Montreal Protocol, eliminating their use. Even though the ozone layer will take decades to replenish, it has begun to recover, signaling a success in the fight against products that can harm our planet.

Dealing with human-created environmental problems is likely to be one of the biggest issues in the 21st century. Teens should therefore follow this issue closely. The world’s youth is responsible for cleaning up the mess left by previous generations. Whether its government policy trying to redress environmental damage or the development of new green technology, the health of our planet is sure to remain a hot topic.

Some popular Valentine’s Day gifts not so sweet when it comes to labor issues

This February 14th, millions of lucky loved ones will be receiving chocolate and flowers, the ubiquitous staples of Valentine’s Day gift giving. But the beautiful flowers and delicious chocolates we all enjoy this time of year often come at the expense of exploited adult workers or child laborers in the cocoa and flower industries.

Flower farm abuses

Valentine’s Day accounts for 40 percent of annual fresh flower sales in the United States. To meet the holiday’s huge demand for flowers, flower retailers regularly purchases large amounts of flowers from farms in Ecuador and Cuba. According to Change.org, two-thirds of flower farm workers in these countries are women. The women are routinely forced to work 80-hour weeks with no overtime pay, are subjected to harassment and abuse from male supervisors, and often suffer from health problems such as eye infections and miscarriages brought on by prolonged contact with dangerous pesticides. Despite these well-documented abuses, 1-800-Flowers (the largest florist in the world), has so far refused to offer consumers Fair Trade flowers that require farms to adhere to certain worker’s rights standards. Concerned consumers can sign Change.org’s petition urging 1-800-Flowers to sell Fair Trade flowers by clicking here and those who want no part in the exploitation of women can buy their flowers from local farmers or from competitors, such as Whole Foods and Stop & Shop, that sell Fair Trade flowers.

Forced and child labor at cocoa plants

The cocoa industry has its own record of worker abuse and exploitation. Since 2001, cocoa produced from West Africa has fallen under great scrutiny because of allegations that children are involved in harvesting the crop under sometimes harsh conditions. The U.S. Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor includes cocoa from five countries, including the Ivory Coast and Ghana. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, the U.S. Department of State estimates that more than 109,000 children in Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa industry work under “the worst forms of child labor,” and that some 10,000 are victims of human trafficking or enslavement. Just last month, two Ivory Coast workers died while loading cocoa onto a United States-bound ship because they were overworked and never received proper training. The disappointing labor rights record throughout the West African cocoa industry has prompted the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University to urge chocolate companies to take responsibility for their supply chains by working to ensure labor rights compliance and implementing traceability systems for their cocoa supply chains. Hershey has so far has remained conspicuously absent from labor rights discussions and has made no effort to help ensure the safety of its cocoa suppliers despite posting record earnings in 2010. Click here to sign a petition to urge Hershey to support Fair Trade certified cocoa.

Collaborating for better (global) consumer protections

By Terry Kush, NCL Senior Director of Operations and Finance

Two weeks ago today, I stood waiting in the Cairo airport anxious to return to Washington, DC. While in Egypt, I participated in two workshops (one in Luxor and another in Cairo) on behalf of the National Consumers League. The workshops, titled “Regional NGO Capacity Building Workshops,” was sponsored and coordinated by the United States Department of Commerce’s Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP) in cooperation with the Egyptian Consumer Protection Agency (ECPA), and funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). I was joined by our colleagues from Consumers Union, Consumers Federation of America, and Consumers International.

According to CLDP, the purpose of the workshops was to “strengthen management skills, build confidence of NGOs’ staff to use management tools operationally in implementing their activities, and promote public awareness and spread the culture of consumer protection.” However, I believe it is the exchange of “best practices” and shared experiences along with the various strategic planning, market surveillance and capacity building tools that made these workshops very participatory in nature, and; therefore, beneficial to everyone. In Luxor, we hosted roughly 20-25 NGOs from 7 surrounding districts. These organizations represented those new to the consumer movement and those in operation for 1 – 2+ years. In Cairo, an even bigger turn out, we had close to 30-35 NGOs representing 7-8 outposts.

In 2006, the Egyptian government instituted a consumer protection law, which resulted in the creation of the Consumer Protection Agency. Their role is “to protect consumers by implementing the consumer protection law in coordination with other governmental entities concerned with its implementation.” Sounds familiar?! Well, of course it does. They used the framework established in the 1960’s by a speech given by President Kennedy, in front of Congress (March 15, 1962), pointing out “Consumers, by definition, include us all,” and outlined his vision for consumer rights. These governing principals include eight consumer rights:

  • The right to satisfaction of basic needs
  • The right to safety
  • The right to be informed
  • The right to choose
  • The right to be heard
  • The right to redress
  • The right to consumer education
  • The right to a healthy environment

What I found astonishing is that Egypt has a consumer protection agency at all; and, while the United States works through — maybe — the kinks of re-establishing the consumer protection agency in the White House, consumers remain, as President Kennedy noted, “… the only important group… whose views are often not heard.”

What I also found interesting is some of the similarities that my own organization shares with the umbrella organization ECPA. Like ECPA, the National Consumers League houses a fraud center that consumers can use to file complaints. ECPA, as do we, receives complaints electronically, via fax and in writing. They track unfair practices in the marketplace such as durable goods, car safety and Internet fraud. Many of the smaller NGOs work to educate the consumer about his/her rights as a consumer. Like America, product safety is a never-ending battle. Egyptians would argue that their cases of unsafe products are much higher and a bigger problem than in the United States, since many of the products that come into the country do not have restrictions or guidelines that must be adhered to. At the end of the day, there was a common theme among consumer organizations, “How do we deal with inappropriate and false advertising?” to “How do we create consumer awareness and corporate social responsibility?”

These workshops speak to the ever-growing need for collaboration among consumer NGOs, as the issues increase due to the global marketplace and access to services and goods via the Internet. What we will find is that if consumer awareness is a part of both institutional agendas and government mandate we, as consumer organizations, can have a bigger impact on product safety, corporate social responsibility, fair prices in the global marketplace and fair treatment of not only consumers but workers’ rights around the world.

It is my hope that we take this message around the world as we look to create and expand consumer NGOs nationally and abroad.