FOR MOST modern citizens, brutal stories of slave labor are historical remembrances of the Pyramids or the Deep South. But for the four million Soviet prisoners--including 10,000 political dissidents--who have cleared forests, manufactured consumer goods, and even built entire cities, forced labor is a chilling reality.
The existence of such labor camps, officially labelled "corrective labor colonies," has been known in the West for nearly 30 years. Yet while the issue transcends the confines of national sovereignty and threatens human dignity everywhere, hardly a whisper of this grotesque violation has entered into American political debate.
William von Raab, the U.S. Commissioner of Customs, broke that silence earlier this month when he urged the Administration to ban the importation of Soviet products manufactured with the help of slave labor. Federal law already prohibits the importing of goods produced" wholly, or in part, in any foreign country by convict labor and or forced labor." But this rule has never been enforced. And despite von Raab's urgent request, it remains unclear whether the Administration would pursue such a ban given the President's reluctance in pursuing economic sanctions. Even the tidal wave of public outcry over the Soviet downing of a Korean jetliner failed to alter Reagan's opposition to trade sanctions.
Modern Soviet labor camps (or "gulags") first arose under Joseph Stalin's regime. His secret police rounded up the inmates--mostly Stalin's political opponents--and imprisoned them in a series of camps known as the "Gulag Archipelago." At their peak in the late 1940's, slave labor camps held as many as 15 million Russians. The exact numbers remain unknown--thousands may have died of starvation, cold, or disease. Interviews of recently released gulag inmates have revealed that conditions today are in violation of nearly every recognized standard of health and safety.
The number of gulag prisoners has sharply declined since the 1940's but slave labor remains an active component of the Russian work force. Growing evidence suggests that the Soviets used forced labor in building their Siberian gas pipeline to Western Europe. According to a Central Intelligence Agency report prepared at the request of the Senate, more than 100 labor camps dot the pipeline's route. The United Nations International Organization has publicly accused Moscow of employing slave labor on the trans-Siberian pipeline: and French and West German leaders have expressed deep reservations about the alleged Soviet behavior. Concluded Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. "It is well known that forced labor has been used in pipeline projects in the past and we have evidence that it is being used now."
Furthermore, as Soviet leaders discover the economic advantages of using cheap slave labor, the number of prisoners may increase once again. As crime and alcoholism rise, authorities simply ship away these twin social problems to remote regions of Siberia. The CIA report also notes, "Forced labor is thus likely to become a more important means of relieving serious manpower shortages, particularly in inhospitable areas." Even more sinister, Vietnamese and other Asians form a growing contingent of slave laborers, a partial "payment" of Vietnam's huge debt to the Soviet Union.
DESPITE such global abuses of human rights, the American response has been erratic--circumspect at best, incomprehensible at worst. These vacillations testify to the frustrating difficulty of enacting an effective campaign untainted with open hypocrisy. Moreover, the economic costs of some tactics have thwarted their effectiveness in "punishing" the Soviets. For example, the unsuccessful 1980 grain embargo ultimately hurt American farmers more than the Soviet government; Moscow simply bought the grain from others.
In von Raab's request, however, the Administration has the unique opportunity to pursue a human rights policy without the tinge of a political double standard and without significant economic costs. Indeed, the real hypocrisy lies in turning a blind eye to our own federal statutes and internationally recognized norms of labor relations. Moreover, this failure threatens our credibility as human rights advocates. The Soviet items included in von Raab's proposal (automobile parts, clothing, camera lenses, wire fences, and mattresses) represent an insignificant part of U.S.-Soviet trade. A ban on such imports, especially if coordinated with our allies, might substantially reduce the economic attractiveness of slave labor, while having a minimal impact on our own economy.
When it comes to Soviet exports, it's a buyer's market. And after examining the products and the options, the U.S. should decide to but elsewhere--the price just isn't right.