5 Giant Companies Who Use Slave Labor

By: Gerri

Most of us support unethical practices with our purchases in some way, whether we want to — or even know about it — or not. Many large corporations utilize slave labor, and, even worse, child slave labor, when outsourcing their production. It’s not that they hate children; they just like money a lot better. Besides, most of these kids aren’t American, so the distance and hidden nature of these atrocities provide a level of depersonalization that acts as just another excuse to keep on doing it. Here are five huge companies who use or have used child labor to create something you or someone you know has bought.

Phillip Morris

In 2010, Philip Morris was “forced to admit” that at least 72 children were working on tobacco farms that sold to PM, some of which as young as ten years old. “Forced” is the key word in the last sentence; it was only after the Human Rights Watch uncovered a sordid tale of slavery and illegal practices on tobacco farms in Kazakhstan that Philip Morris took only partial responsibility for these problems.

Using child slaves, many of whom developed rashes on their necks and stomachs from handling the tobacco, wasn’t Morris’ only offense. The farms (who sold 1,500 tonnes of tobacco to PM in 2009 and other significant amounts to cigarette companies in Russia) utilized migrant workers for slave labor, often confiscating their passports and forcing them to work overtime without compensation.

Despite “regular and constructive dialogue” between Human Rights Watch and Philip Morris in 2010, it was later discovered that Philip Morris was failing to live up to their promises regarding putting a stop to these illegal and unethical practices. If the idea of poor families working 13-hour days for pennies while their small children slave in the tobacco fields at the risk of nicotine poisoning makes you feel bad, try to avoid purchasing the following:

Marlboro, Basic, Benson & Hedges, Cambridge, Chesterfield, Commander, Dave’s, English Ovals, Lark, L&M, Merit, Parliament, Players, Saratoga and Virginia Slims.

Victoria Secret

Victoria’s Secret purchases fair trade cotton only, so what’s the problem? Unfortunately, “fair trade” has become just another imaginary phrase like “gourmet” or the vague and somewhat meaningless label of “organic.”

In Burkina Faso, Africa, many fair trade farms are claiming that they lack the resources to grow fair trade cotton without utilizing child labor. Bloomberg.com reported on one 13-year-old girl, Clarisse, who sleeps on a piece of plastic and is woken up by shouting at early hours in the morning. She plants and picks cotton all day, straining and sweating in somewhat of a hurry. She isn’t going anywhere, but her ‘boss’ will beat her with a tree branch if she doesn’t move quickly enough.
Victoria’s Secret’s reaction to all of this was equivalent to shrugging and sort of muttering, “whatever, I don’t know what you’re talking about” before changing the subject. A 2008 report from Helvetas said that hundreds to thousands of kids are either in or vulnerable to become in a situation similar to Clarisse’s. Victoria’s Secret said they “didn’t read the report” (AKA too indifferent to even consider thinking about the plight of their child laborers, let alone take any responsibility for it or action to stop it). A Victoria’s Secret executive later issued a statement saying:

“They describe behavior contrary to our company’s values and the code of labor and sourcing standards we require all of our suppliers to meet. Our standards specifically prohibit child labor. We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”
That was in late 2011. Since then, Victoria’s Secret has done little more than remove the ‘fair trade’ labels on their Burkina Faso cotton underwear. In another brazenly indifferent move, they simply no longer market the purchase of this underwear as making a positive impact on the lives of the women slaving away on the cotton fields.

KYE and Other Chinese Factories

In 2010, the National Labor Committee ousted a Chinese supplier called KYE for its use of child labor. Some highlights of the report include:
– KYE recruited up to 1,000 “work-study” students (supposed to be 16-17 but many seeming to be 15 and under) to work 15-hour shifts, seven days a week.
– KYE’s second choice are women age 18-25 — considered easier to discipline and control.
– KYE pays workers 65 cents an hour.
– KYE employees are often required to report early to participate in bizarre, military-esque drills.
– Temperatures inside the factory often reach nearly 90 degrees. No air conditioning.
– Frequent claims of sexual harassment from security guards.
– Talking and music are prohibited.
– 14 employees per ‘dorm’ room.
– Showers consist of a sponge and a plastic bucket filled with water.

And of course, to top it off, KYE claims that conditions at their factories are “excellent.”
Microsoft was the company most scrutinized for their utilization of KYE’s slave and child labor, but KYE employees were also manufacturing products for XBox, HP, and other electronics companies. However, other large corporations like Apple have also (only recently) admitted to using Chinese factories who forced child slaves to work long hours under harrowing conditions. Another guilty party is Nokia.
You might be wondering why these companies bother to have a code of conduct at all, seeing at how blatantly it’s ignored. It’s to give customers the illusion that they want — everyone wants an iPhone or a fancy computer, but no one wants to admit that they would probably buy it even if they did know it was made by sick little child slaves who are dying just so they can buy the product at a billion percent markup.

Forever 21, Aeropostale, Toys ‘R’ Us, Urban Outfitters

Regarding purchasing cotton from farms using child labor, Forever 21 has said that it “enters into a comprehensive agreement with each of [its] suppliers and vendors under which they promise to utilize legally qualified workers.” This is code for “what we do is none of your business, so quit trying to emancipate our child slaves! They’re the perfect employees!”

Forever 21 fails to pretend that it cares even a tiny bit about the labor laws in Uzbekistan, the country from which most of their cotton is bought. In Uzbekistan, the government actually removes throes of children from school and places them in cotton fields during the harvest season. Who cares? Not Forever 21, Aeropostale, Toys ‘R’ Us, or Urban Outfitters. All of these companies source cotton from Uzbekistan, while over 70 other large retail stores have at least “made commitments to address forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry,” whatever that vague and lazy-sounding brush-off means.


Hershey’s has recently announced that its new line of chocolates, Bliss Chocolates, will only be made using cocoa certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Don’t get too excited. The only reason for this ‘ethical’ move was to prevent the International Labor Rights Forum from airing an ad featuring Hershey’s use of child labor on a giant screen right outside of the Super Bowl. The bad publicity was enough to get the company to invest in $10 million in West Africa to produce ethically sourced chocolate. Of course, the ILRF chose not to air the ad “in thanks” to Hershey.

Raise the Bar was an anti-child labor campaign aimed against Hershey’s that was active for an entire year before the company paid any mind to it, and only at the threat of embarrassment and lost revenue. Despite signing a protocol against child labor almost ten years ago, Hershey is the one participating company who has failed to eliminate their use of child labor. In West Africa, thousands of children still harvest cocoa for Hershey’s, and their investment with Bliss Chocolates makes only a small difference compared to their many other products that utilize child-picked cocoa.