Nearly 21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor, trafficking and slavery, according to United Nations International Labor Organization estimates. While several countries and a reported 39 U.S. states have adopted anti-trafficking and forced labor laws, skepticism remains as to whether current government policies are bold enough to fully protect vulnerable people from exploitation.
So, what do governments need to do to aggresively tackle heinous forced labor practices?
First, let’s consider how the last three decades shaped our understanding of the challenges and complexities of forced labor industries and practices. Take for instance the outcry against the fashion industry’s use of sweatshops in the 1990s. Consumers demanded transparency about the origins of goods from the multinational corporations selling them. In turn, corporations and NGOs began taking on the role of citizen leadership to crack down on labor laws and influence tighter regulations in countries with lax policies.
Despite these efforts, complete transparency and accountability of labor practices is still a pipe dream. There are very few countries and industries where the manufacturing and trading of goods and services have not been touched by forced labor workers. From cell phone materials to textiles to food, the trade industry remains fueled by the suppression of human rights.
Regulations thus far have been severely inadequate. In 2010, the state of California passed the Transparency in Supply Chains Act. This piece of legislation, which fully rolled out in 2012 and has served as a foundation for labor laws in other states and even the U.K., requires mid-to-large retailers and manufacturing companies to report on their specific actions to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains. Companies must report on which factories are used, how the factories are evaluated to ensure safe and fair labor practices, and confirm that they regularly perform audits of said factories.
The act was poised to pinpoint the practices of over 3,000 companies across the state. However, accountability for this required transparency goes unchecked and under-scrutinized — especially for those businesses making under $100 million who do not have to adhere to the legislation’s requirements.
“Although the new provision will push slave labor higher up the agenda for businesses and help increase transparency, there are concerns that it will do little to force companies to properly investigate slavery in their supply chains,” Annie Kelly of the Guardian wrote of the new U.K. policies last year.
A high-profile case brought against Costco Wholesalers by customer Monica Sud revealed that, despite the warehouse giant’s disclosure against human slavery from its suppliers, there were discrepancies with some items. Sud sued Costco, saying a bag of prawns she purchased were made using feed meal produced in Thailand under forced labor conditions. The case was dismissed on a technicality of location of the prawns, but pointed to the larger issue of how lax government regulations can help corporations skirt accountability.
Moves to ensure compliance are underway.
In February, U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama passed a bill preventing U.S. imports of goods made by child or forced labor. The new provisions closed a loophole in the 1930s Tariff Act that allowed for these types of goods, regardless of conditions, under the auspices of meeting consumer demand. The Department of Homeland Security will now lead supply chain monitoring and investigations of firms tied to forced labor across 46 countries.
But the victory is not without its inherent challenges. Ongoing intensive investigation will be difficult, leaving many suppliers to regulate themselves, only called into question when outside parties make allegations about the business’ practices.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that she is placing the forced labor issue high on her priority list by supporting anti-trafficking laws that include training of law enforcement and transportation security officials “so they can spot signs of trafficking.” She also pushed for federal spending to steer clear of funding forced labor, even calling out recruitment schemes that “make workers vulnerable to exploitation."
Addressing the forced labor issue with government intervention must push thinking on how to prevent vulnerable populations from being swept into the industries in the first place.
Without economic and structural stability in the form of basic human needs (clean water, education, housing, transportation, health care, jobs, etc), provisions and global efforts to eradicate the construct of forced labor will remain solely targeted toward symptoms of the much more dire need of prevention through better policies that support vulnerable populations.
Sherrell Dorsey is a social impact storyteller, social entrepreneur and advocate for environmental, social and economic equity in underserved communities. Sherrell speaks and writes frequently on the topics of sustainability, technology, and digital inclusion.