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From Apple Gadgets to Palm Oil, New CA Law Compels Companies to Disclose Efforts to Combat Slavery

Law Applies to 3,200 Businesses in the State With More Than $100 M in Worldwide Gross Receipts

Photo byJurvetson (flickr)Workers at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. Industry watchdog group Fair Labor Association began inspections today (Feb. 14) at the plant that makes products for Apple, following reports of harsh working conditions.

Apple is not the only California company that has to deal with labor problems. Whether in factories where our electronics are assembled or on plantations where foods like the Valentine’s chocolate many of us eat today originate, forced labor and human trafficking are persistent problems. 

As the recent Apple scandal has shown, our purchasing decisions embroil us in appalling instances of slave labor more often than we probably like to think. In today’s consumer landscape, the reach of our dollar extends far beyond our own communities. Many of the basic ingredients found in the products we use every day originate from shadowy sources at the other end of complex international markets. This disconnect between the products we buy and the conditions under which they are produced is one of the major hurdles in eradicating slavery. Long supply chains have made it all too easy for companies and consumers to turn a blind eye, either intentionally or inadvertently, to the origin of their goods. 

Thanks to a new California law, however, it is no longer enough for a company to say it doesn't know the conditions in which its products are grown or manufactured. The Transparency in Supply Chains Act (SB 657), which went into effect in California on January 1, 2012, requires companies to disclose, in a prominent place on their websites, what they are doing to combat forced labor and human trafficking in their supply chains. 

The law applies to all corporations doing business in California with more than $100 million in worldwide gross receipts – an estimated 3,200 companies. The law requires these companies to publicly report on actions they take to eradicate slave labor, pushing them to ask their suppliers about how a product or an ingredient was produced. 

A good example of where this new law could incentivize real change is in the production of palm oil, an additive that is now found in over half of all packaged goods on US grocery store shelves. Some commodities pose a higher level of risk than others when it comes to slave labor, and palm oil, though drastically under-reported, is top among them. In 2010, the US Department of Labor confirmed the longstanding concerns among human rights and environmental watchdog groups by placing palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia on its “List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor.” 

Shockingly, the production of this unassuming oil — hidden in thousands of our every day products from soap and lipstick to breakfast cereal and soymilk — is a primary driver of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and human rights abuses including slave and child labor.

Rainforest Action Network campaigners have spent the last two years documenting the unspeakable treatment of people on palm oil plantations. We’ve witnessed firsthand accounts of people who’ve had their land seized, who’ve worked unpaid for months before escaping from plantations, who’ve lived in work camps where they’ve been locked in at night, who've endured backbreaking labor and exposure to toxic fertilizers with no protection and scant compensation. In 2012, nobody should be treated like that, especially not for a product that is used largely to keep our junk food cheap.     

While palm oil is rife with controversy, imports of the additive to the U.S. have jumped 485 percent in the last decade. In fact, the use of slave labor on palm oil plantations is at the heart of why the oil is such a ubiquitous additive in so many of our every day food products. In Indonesia, which along with Malaysia has produced 80 percent of the world’s palm oil since 2008, the seizing of community lands for palm plantations and the use of forced labor is what keeps the oil so cheap, both to produce and to buy. Palm oil, like so many other high-risk commodities, is kept at an artificially low price because of cheap labor and a lack of safeguards. 

For California businesses to comply with SB657 and steer free of controversial palm oil, there is one major company they must look to— Cargill Inc. The agribusiness giant is the U.S.’s largest importer of palm oil and trader of 25 percent of the world’s palm oil supply. For most California companies purchasing palm oil, Cargill holds the keys to ensuring adherence with this new law.  

Until now, Cargill refused to adopt basic environmental and human rights safeguards on its supply chains. If California companies take this new law seriously, they will need Cargill to disclose what it is doing to identify and eliminate slave labor used to produce everything from palm oil to chocolate to clothing.

The long supply chains that conceal slave labor and human trafficking from public view may be complex, but the question about whether to stop these barbaric practices is not. California businesses have been given a legal incentive to take leadership on this morally pressing issue. It’s time they did.  

Rebecca TarbottonRebecca Tarbotton photo
Rebecca Tarbotton is the executive director of the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network,

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