Promoting Safe and Fair Working Conditions

As ethical consumers, we have a responsibility to know where the products we buy come from and how they were made.  This can be challenging as products are often assembled from components that were made in multiple countries.  The United Nations and International Labour Organization (ILO) have defined labor standards that are designed to be applied throughout the world.  A key aspect of fair trade certification is verification that products are not made with child labor, forced labor, or unsafe working conditions.

Child Labor

The United Nations estimates that over 200 million children are caught in circumstances of child labor such that they are denied the fundamental needs of education, nutrition, and play.  More than half are trapped in the most harmful activities including work including slavery, prostitution, drug trafficking, and armed conflict.  Since many children in developing countries work on family farms or other family enterprises in preparation for adulthood, it is understood that not all work by children is considered child labor.  However, the UN estimates that 70 percent of child labor is in the agricultural industry.

Child labor is defined as work that causes any of the following:

  • Mentally, socially, or physically harm
  • Inability to attend school
  • Interrupts education by requiring them to leave prematurely
  • Interferes with learning by combining strenuous work requirements while attending school

Forced Labor

Victims of forced labor include migrants indebted to those who helped them get into their host countries, girls and women forced into prostitution, and sweatshop or farm workers who are trapped in their place of employment.  The ILO has defined forced or compulsory labor to be any non-voluntary work which is performed under threat of penalty.  Countries that have ratified the ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention agree not to use forced labor:

  • As political punishment or coercion
  • For economic development
  • As punishment for participating in a strike
  • As a means of racial, social, national, or religious discrimination

Unsafe Working Conditions

According to the ILO, a worker dies from a work-related accident or illness every 15 seconds.  An additional 160 workers have a work-related accident every 15 seconds.

The ILO has provided a framework for defining worker safety including:

  • Physical and mental well-being of workers
  • Safety and hygiene factors
  • Workplaces, equipment, and materials used by workers
  • Action taken by employer to prevent injury, such as training and protective gear

Reference Materials

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