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Human Cost Not Bogus

There is no easy way to describe the reality facing millions of Asian children in slave labor. But consumers need to know this reality has a face – that of a child begging you to do something.

When you buy a knock-off Prada bag on the street corner you – and maybe only you – know what you have – a fake. What you may not know is there’s an increasing likelihood the bag and millions like it were manufactured by children.

Working in giant sweatshops in Thailand, Cambodia, China or India, most of them are between the ages of 10 and 14 and were purchased and smuggled in through a nasty network of organized crime. As governments in some countries look the other way, many of these children are living in filth, working long hours in dilapidated factories and denied any hope that they will some day escape.

To most of us, human trafficking conjures up visions of young girls forced into the billion-dollar commercial sex trade world. To be sure, this is where too many of those children end up. But commercial sexual exploitation accounts for less than 20 percent of the trade in child labor. The rest are forcibly engaged in manufacturing counterfeit products – from luxury watches to designer clothing to industrial products such as batteries and car parts. I’ve discovered the youngest are often assigned to assemble the tiny piecework where small hands are most efficient, such as fake jeweled watches.

This emerging picture of how children are used by organized crime syndicates is the latest chapter to be discovered in the powerful counterfeiting industry. And it is really not that new. It is just now being challenged by human rights groups.

Legislation is now before the Senate Finance Committee which would significantly expand the existing ban on products made with forced or child labor. The bill also cracks down on the infringement of intellectual property rights. Congress should pass it and understand that the linkage between child labor and intellectual property rights is no coincidence – it is all part of the same corrupt counterfeiting network that is growing stronger every day.

The law is needed because the strength and organization of crime syndicates have become more sophisticated. They appeal to foreign officials for protection through bribes. Governments in these countries often turn a blind

eye to the terrible social consequences that arise when black market manufacturers thrive.

Counterfeiters have also mastered the obstacles that once tripped them up – foreign trade laws, technology, security and borders. They’ve done so well at circumventing these obstacles that they now use them as a competitive advantage – allowing them to charge higher prices and move to markets more nimbly than the legal manufacturers.

And in the underbelly of this world, millions of children are at risk – used as tiny human pawns, commoditized by crime syndicates and ignored by corrupt governments.

You not may think much about robbing Prada of its opportunity to make a profit on your handbag. But such apathy is exactly what the counterfeiters and their collaborators count on. When you buy these fakes you are putting innocent children in high demand, as they are scouted and preyed upon by child-slave traders.

Ordinary citizens rising up has worked before. People, not governments, were the catalysts that shut down apartheid in South Africa. Grocery shoppers bought dolphin-safe tuna and helped save dwindling numbers of those marine mammals.

There is no easy way to describe the harsh reality facing millions of Asian children in slave labor. But consumers need to know this reality has a face – that of a young child with big eyes begging you to do something. 

Edward Kelly is a Bangkok based international IP attorney for the Siam Premier International. He received the Victor J. Garo Public Service Award from Boston University School of Law on  October 7, 2009.

(OP-ED ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN THE BOSTON HERALD, OCTOBER 10, 2009)

By Edward J Kelly © October 2010