While American corporations are obligated to observe fair labor and safety laws with respect to their domestic employees, they may be less mindful of how their foreign suppliers treat members of their own workforces. Reports of major U.S. corporations’ procuring goods produced overseas or staple ingredients for domestically produced goods that have been manufactured or farmed by underage or otherwise exploited laborers have been numerous. Ignorance of their suppliers’ practices is the typical corporate defense when ethical lapses are exposed in the press. Indifference born of prioritizing profit over principle, however, may reasonably be supposed. Sustainable development demands that corporations give scrupulous regard even to how laborers in underdeveloped countries are treated by suppliers of outsourced goods and services.
Minding Its Own Business Is Not All Big Business Should Be Concerned With business In this the era of eco-consciousness, it is expected that Big Business reject the fat cat capitalist philosophy of profit-over-people and embrace the role of good steward. Balance and sustainable development is the new business model. The emphasizing the bottom line while disdaining to acknowledge responsibility to the natural and human resources that ensure companies' market viability is no longer acceptable practice.
Corporations that outsource business to Third World countries and directly or indirectly exploit laborers there to increase their profit margins fail to live up to their moral obligations. Such corporations should either exert their influence to better economic opportunities and living conditions of foreign laborers or sanction suppliers who mistreat their workforces by taking their business elsewhere.
A number of scandals involving major U.S. corporations’ exploiting underpaid and/or underage laborers have emerged in recent years. The temptations to outsource business to Third World countries where populations are economically desperate are irresistible: cheap labor, low overhead, and no government regulation. Equally irresistible is the temptation of American consumers to buy cheap goods without considering how those goods are manufactured. It is unreasonable to expect consumers to investigate the origin of every pair of socks or can of coffee they toss in their shopping carts. It is down to corporations, rather, to self-monitor and cultivate conscionable business practices.
Many industry leaders that should be role models of sustainable development, however, have proven notoriously lax in realizing this ideal. Nike, Gap, and Apple have been indicted for procuring products from Asian sweatshops, for instance, and Hersey has been exposed for buying the cocoa beans used in its hallmark chocolates from exploited West African farmers.
Sweatshops, so called because laborers are kept (often literally penned) in barely tolerable living and working quarters, prey on those with no alternative means to support themselves. Laborers work long hours in conditions of extreme privation for what amounts to slave wages. Big corporations that buy from sweatshops provide the markets that sustain those sweatshops and therefore not only profit from the misery of their abused labors but are the proximate cause of that suffering.
Ten percent of Gap Kids’ estimated 2,000 suppliers are located in India where 38% of the population lives in abject poverty and child exploitation is rampant. One of Gap’s suppliers was busted on October 7, 2007 for child labor violations. Two weeks later, a pregnant factory worker whose request to leave work had been denied went into labor and lost her baby at the factory. Another worker died after being verbally abused for seeking permission to go to the hospital. Since many sweatshop workers, including children as young seven, are stuck in dark rooms for up to 16 hours a day while working seven days a week, such tragedies should hardly be surprising.