It’s happening as you read this, in multiple corners of the globe: Somewhere, children are picking cotton in blazing hot fields. Women and men are forced to weave textiles in appalling conditions under an ever-present threat of abuse. Trafficking victims, shuttled far from the lives they once knew into unfamiliar and often hostile surroundings, are putting in 14-hour days sewing garments for little to no compensation.
It goes without saying that these are not jobs. They are forms of exploitation that, in fact, undermine job creation, including here at home. On a level playing field, American workers can compete with anyone. But they cannot compete with people who are essentially slaves. Responsible businesses, just like governments, have a vital role to play in ensuring they never have to.
At the Department of Labor, we are doing our part to ensure that forced labor, human trafficking and modern slavery become barbaric relics of the past – enhancing international reporting, targeting technical assistance and developing innovative tools that have increased engagement and spurred action to address child labor and forced labor around the world.
Meanwhile, some companies have long recognized the responsibility they bear – as well as the advantages they gain – by ensuring that national labor laws and fundamental labor rights are respected throughout their supply chains. Many of these companies have instituted robust voluntary standards, ramped up their due diligence, sought remediation in cases where abuses were found, increased transparency along their supply chains and engaged more actively with stakeholders to tackle this problem.
Whether motivated by risk of reputational damage, regulation, building pressure or a sincere desire to do the right thing, more businesses are beginning to acknowledge and address labor abuses in their supply chains.
New laws and regulations in both the United Kingdom and the United States, such as the Tariff Act prohibition on the importation of goods produced by forced labor, put in place new requirements on certain businesses related to combatting these labor abuses. And high-profile exposés in several major media outlets have caused companies in the garment, seafood, and fruit and vegetable sectors to review the adequacy of their responses.
Even with such commitments, even the most vigilant and committed businesses confront a complex set of challenges around efforts to address forced labor in their supply chains. These include deceptive and coercive recruitment, and the widespread practice of debt bondage, in which workers borrow money to pay various fees associated with their recruitment, and are unable to work off those debts in a reasonable amount of time.
Tackling these issues requires downstream supply chain partners – brands, buyers and top-tier suppliers – to look not only at their material suppliers, but also at their labor suppliers, and to hold those suppliers accountable. Some companies and industry groups, such as the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, have addressed abusive worker recruitment practices through strict “no recruitment fees” policies that apply to all members and their suppliers.
The International Labor Organization in 2015 instituted the multi-stakeholder Fair Recruitment Initiative, which aims to protect the rights of workers, including migrant workers, from abusive and fraudulent practices during the recruitment process, and reduce the cost of labor migration for migrant workers and their families.
In 2016, the Institute for Human Rights and Business launched a Leadership Group for Responsible Recruitment to promote among senior business leaders the “employer pays principle” – a commitment by employers to paying all recruitment-related fees for workers in their supply chains.
For our part, the Labor Department has developed a range of tools to assist businesses in their efforts to address these issues. Since its first edition in 2009, our List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor has played an important role in helping businesses understand the risks of forced labor and child labor in their supply chains. In 2015, we released Sweat and Toil, an application for iPhone and Android that puts the data from all our reports on international child and forced labor into the palm of your hand.
Other resources include Reducing Child Labor and Forced Labor: A Toolkit for Responsible Businesses, which provides practical, step-by-step guidance on eight key elements of comprehensive social compliance programs in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. And we also developed, in coordination with the Departments of Agriculture and State, a set of Guidelines for Eliminating Child and Forced Labor in Agricultural Supply Chains. We’re currently funding an approximately $4.8 million pilot project to implement these guidelines in Turkey’s hazelnut sector.
The meaningful prevention and reduction of human trafficking, forced labor and modern slavery cannot be achieved without sustained commitment from the businesses that produce, manufacture, distribute and sell goods around the world. Yet they cannot do so alone. Combating such abuses requires concerted action from government, civil society and consumers as well.
We must all take a moment and ask, “What can I do?”
Marcia Eugenio is the director of the Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking in the department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.