Guest Column: Slave labor—not valued in Lincoln’s state

Not one major Illinois daily covered what should have been a pretty big story: Illinois state government is finally required by law to live up to the principles of our state’s favorite son.

Beginning on Jan. 1, 2004, the State Prohibition of Goods from Forced Labor Act will require everyone who signs a contract to sell equipment, materials or supplies to any state agency to specify that no foreign-made goods provided under that contract were made by forced, convict, or indentured labor. Contractors who violate this provision will be subject to suspension, fines and cancellation of their contracts. What a fine tribute to the Great Emancipator!

Governor Blagojevich signed the act into law on July 23, 2003, after the bill, HB 0102, passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly, overwhelmingly.

Overwhelmingly, but not unanimously. Four state representatives and 11 state senators voted against it. All of them are members of Mr. Lincoln’s Republican Party. Among them are both of Rockford’s own state senators, J. Bradley Burzynski and Dave Syverson.

It’s hard to fathom why a Polish-American like Senator Burzynski would object to a bill to penalize slave labor. During World War II, millions of Poles, Jews, Gypsies, and people of other nationalities and religions were forced to work under inhuman conditions in Nazi industry as slave laborers. Many did not survive. Has Senator Burzynski eaten of the lotus of politics and forgotten where he’s come from?

When a similar bill was before the state Senate a few years ago, Senator Syverson told the Rockford Register Star (June 3, 2000) that he opposed it because China might retaliate by refusing to buy Illinois goods, “and then we’re all in trouble.”

Senator Syverson’s comments suggest that he is well aware that China produces and exports goods made by slave labor. According to the Laogai Research Foundation, the Chinese government encourages its slave labor camps (laogai) to export goods into the international market, and to the U.S.A., even though this is in outright violation of its agreements with the U.S. government not to do so.

Senator Syverson is also apparently aware that the inmates of China’s slave labor concentration camps are not without troubles of their own. These include systematic deprivation of adequate nutrition and medical care, torture with electric batons, beatings with fists and clubs, and confinement in handcuffs and leg irons that cause intense pain. Many of these inmates got into trouble because they are pro-democracy activists, labor organizers, or religious believers—Christians, Muslims and Buddhists—whose creeds have been criminalized. Still others have been imprisoned because they resisted submitting to the forced abortions used by Chinese officials to enforce their government’s one-child policy. Most recently, over 100,000 Falun Gong practitioners have been imprisoned because their peaceful, contemplative philosophy is regarded as threatening and criminal by the Chinese Communist government.

Despite all this, Senator Syverson has said that he believes that protecting Illinois business with China is a good reason for allowing that country to continue to profit through slave-labor trade with the Illinois State government. Perhaps he should consider what Mr. Lincoln had to say on this topic: “Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

Another abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, said this about the business of slavery: “The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery.” Is this the kind of trade-off that senators Burzynski and Syverson had in mind when they voted to protect the state’s ability to buy goods made by slave labor?

John M. Stassi is a Rockford resident.

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