A U.S.-BASED workers' rights group used the light shone in recent weeks on Chinese products to illuminate a report condemning Chinese plants that do business with international firms like Disney, Bandai, and Hasbro for the low wages, nonexistent benefits, dangerous work environment, and humiliating living conditions provided for workers.
But the timing of the China Labor Watch report also highlights the fact that Americans, regrettably, are generally unaware of how products get from the factory to their homes, except when those products threaten to poison their pets, their children, or themselves.
The group issued its report now, in part, because the furor over tainted toothpaste, dog food, and toys from China meant Americans would be paying attention, at least for the moment. Other groups jumped on the bandwagon as well, beating their drums about the growing pollution of China's air and water, the communist government's treatment of dissidents, the plight of Tibet, and a host of other failings.
But China is by no means the only place in the world where wretched conditions exist, as Americans need to be aware.
Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 218 million 5 to 18-year-olds work in developing countries. Some do work that is beneficial to themselves and their families, but many aren't so lucky. Thousands work at looms producing the Asian carpets that are the pride of many homes, but their labor, often a form of permanent indentured servitude just a step removed from outright slavery, can result in eye damage, lung disease, stunted growth, and arthritis.
Foreign children who have little time for play stitch soccer balls that end up on American playing fields. Hundreds of thousands have their childhoods stolen by being forced into prostitution or compelled to take part in armed conflicts. An estimated 150 million children labor in fields throughout the world - including in the United States - often being exposed to dangerous pesticides, carrying heavy loads, and using dangerous tools.
Millions of women (and girls) work as domestic servants in scores of countries (again including the United States), often suffering abuse and indignities at the hands of their employers for little more than slave wages.
Millions more work in sweatshops - some here, but the vast majority in Latin America and Asia - sewing the shirts, socks, and underwear that will end up in American closets.
The global economy can be a powerful tool for improving the lives and prospects for millions of people in developing nations. In the long run, that can have a beneficial effect on the U.S. economy as the rising international standard of living creates new markets for American products. But opportunity never knocks without bringing with it responsibility.
In this case, the responsibility is shared - every day, not just when tainted products are discovered - between the federal government, U.S. companies doing business with foreign manufacturers, and even short-sighted American consumers to make sure that the goods arriving at our ports are not the products of sweatshops, slave labor, or other inhumane environments.
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