May 2003 - VOLUME 24 - NUMBER 5
B E H I N D T H E L I N E S
May Dept.: Out of Burma
May Department Stores, the St. Louis-based retail giant and owner of 14 chains including Foley's, Lord & Taylor, Hechts, Strawbridges, Robinsons-May, and David's Bridal, said in April that it will no longer sell products made in Burma.
The company, which had $13.5 billion in sales last year, posted the change in policy on its website, making it the fortieth U.S. company in three years to boycott Burma products.
So many companies have banned "Made in Burma" clothing that U.S. imports from Burma have dropped 27 percent in the past year -- a sharp reversal compared to a previous surge in imports.
"May has Űmade the right choice,'" says Aung Din, director of policy for the Free Burma Coalition, referring to the company's slogan. "There are almost no major retailers that want to be associated with Burma's brutal dictatorship and its vicious use of forced and slave labor."
A number of groups, including the American Anti-Slavery Group and the Campaign for Labor Rights as well as the Free Burma Coalition, launched a boycott of May Stores after the company refused to respond to complaints over "Made in Burma" products on store shelves. May had been retailing clothing made in Burma by several companies including Rafaella and One Step Up.
May joins dozens of major retailers in its decision, such as top competitors Federated Department Stores and Saks, as well as Wal-Mart, Costco, Tommy Hilfiger, Fila, and Hanes. Companies are boycotting Burmese products due to links between the country's garment industry and forced labor.
According to the U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report on Burma: "Forced labor, including forced child labor, has contributed materially to the construction of industrial parks subsequently used largely to produce manufactured exports including garments."
Anti-Slavery in Brazil
Brazilian President Luiz InĚcio Lula da Silva launched a National Plan to Eradicate Slave Labor in March. The Plan consists of 75 measures to eliminate all contemporary forms of slavery.
The Brazilian government says the plan will reinforce measures that it has undertaken since the beginning of the year, when the Lula administration took office, to combat slave labor. During its first two months in office, 841 slave workers were released and paid compensation.
An estimated 25,000 people are held in debt slavery in Brazil, mostly in remote areas in the Amazon.
"Much more than a law, we need determination and the political will of the state to eradicate slave labor in our country," the New York Times quoted Lula as saying.
The initiative calls for more inspectors and police raids to crack down on the use of slave labor, as well as the imposition of criminal penalties and heavy fines against slave owners.
The plan also calls for a constitutional amendment that would allow businesses and properties that used slave labor to be seized and for the assets to be turned over to the former slaves. Anti-Slavery International applauded this measure in particular, which it and local Brazilian groups such as the Pastoral Land Commission had long urged.
The government's national plan also includes a policy for social reintegration, so that workers who have been rescued are not again enslaved.
Trafficking in Children
West African governments are failing to address a rampant traffic in child labor that could worsen with the region's growing AIDS crisis, Human Rights Watch charged in an April report.
"Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo" documents how children as young as three years old are exploited as domestic and agricultural workers in several countries. Focusing on Togo, the reports shows how traffickers lure children from their homes with promises of high-quality schooling and vocational training abroad. Many of the children are AIDS orphans.
A scandal over the issue of child labor in West Africa blew up in 2002, when nearly half the chocolate produced in the United States was linked to cocoa beans harvested by child laborers in C┘te d'Ivoire. Many of these children had been trafficked from neighboring countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso.
"The cocoa farms are the tip of the iceberg," says Jonathan Cohen, researcher with Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "Trafficking in child labor occurs along numerous routes in West Africa, and governments aren't doing enough to stop it."
Girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch were told to board ships for Gabon, where they work in brutal conditions as housemaids or in markets. Most endured beatings and psychological abuse, including death threats and warnings they would never see their parents again. Some of the Togolese girls who escape from bondage are driven into prostitution, facing a high risk of contracting HIV.
Young Togolese boys told Human Rights Watch they could not afford to pay school fees and so agreed to do agricultural work in Nigeria. They said they cleared brush, planted seeds and plowed fields for up to 13 hours a day, getting beaten if they complained of fatigue. After eight months to two years, they were given a bicycle and told to pedal it home to Togo.
"Boys were robbed by bandits, forced to bribe soldiers and deprived of food on their way home," Cohen says. "Some died and were buried on the side of the road."