Human rights violations — as defined by nongovernmental organizations like the United Nations, Amnesty International, and private law firms involved in human rights law — occur with shocking frequency in every corner of the globe. Some are committed to corner-cutting corporations looking to turn a buck at their workers’ or customers’ expense. Others are the province of bloodthirsty or simply apathetic governments. Still, others are a mixture of both or the doing of mercenaries and ideologically motivated individuals (i.e. religious terrorists).
The horror of religious and ethnic violence is self-evident, but corporate human rights violations are sometimes harder to spot in plain sight.
These five were (and still are) particularly horrible.
Slave Labor on Southern U.S. Tobacco Plantations
In the 2010s, to be clear — not the 1850s. According to a horrifying Human Rights Watch report, the still-vibrant American tobacco industry subjects its workers, who are often underage or undocumented, to brutal working conditions. The highlights of the report include:
- 12-hour-plus days without overtime pay
- Widespread reports of acute nicotine poisoning among workers
- Widespread child employment on large tobacco farms, often under the guise of “internships” or “summer employment”
- No policies governing protective clothing, breaks, or water consumption — all critical considerations during the blistering summer harvest season
The Bangladeshi Garment Industry
The Bangladeshi garment industry employs more than 4 million workers, making it the country’s largest non-agricultural employer. To be frank, the industry has too many problems to name in a full-length magazine article, let alone a single paragraph. Fires, building collapses, and general misery are the predictable results of a profit-driven crusade to squeeze every last penny of value out of underpaid, overworked sewers and stitchers, most of whom are women and children. And this isn’t an abstract problem: Bangladeshi companies work directly with U.S. firms like Gap, whether as subsidiaries or third-party suppliers.
The Bhopal Disaster
The 1984 Bhopal Disaster is generally agreed to be the world industrial disaster in world history. The culprit: a massive toxic gas leak at a pesticide plant operated by an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide, a U.S.-based firm. The leak killed thousands of people outright, injuring hundreds of thousands more; tens of thousands died in the subsequent months and years from related complications, placing the official death toll somewhere around 20,000.
The Chinese Electronics Industry
Where does your smartphone come from? More likely than not, the answer is “China.” Many of the raw materials (including coveted rare earth elements) for phones and other devices come from a mining district in central China, where a massive dead lake — the byproduct of a highly toxic refining process — poisons local water supplies. Though authorities have recently clamped down on the worst abuses, the factories that put together phones and tablets aren’t much better: In the 2000s, dozens of manufacturing employees committed suicide rather than work and live in hellish conditions.
The Ivory Coast’s Cocoa Industry
Cocoa, the raw ingredient in edible chocolate, is difficult to produce in usable quantities. Production involves scurrying up trees, slicing into plant materials with machetes, and working in the oppressive heat. For various reasons, underpaid children are better-suited to these activities than adults. In the Ivory Coast, the epicenter of the global cocoa industry (where Nestle sources much of its cocoa, for example), tens of thousands of children work in conditions approaching slavery.