By Matt Hadro
When we purchase bananas at the grocery store or eat at a seafood restaurant, we might not think twice about it.
But many of the everyday products that we use may be the result of forced labor.
“The world is now focused on slave labor again,” said Justin Dillon, CEO of the group Made in a Free World, which seeks to inform businesses about slave and child labor in their supply chains.
Earlier this year, a new federal law was enacted to prohibit importation of goods made with forced labor into the U.S., a big boost in the fight against labor trafficking.
Since the 1930 Tariff Act, which prohibited such importation, one clause exempted this prohibition for when “consumptive demand” required such goods be imported. Critics have argued that this exemption became a wide loophole and the law’s intent was rarely enforced, resulting in the proliferation of slave-made goods in the U.S. economy.
The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, passed by both parties in Congress, struck that clause, and President Barack Obama signed the act into law this February.
The law is a “positive step” in the fight against trafficking because it “closes a rather large loophole” and is a statement that “we as a country are against products produced by forced labor – full stop,” said Mary Leary, a human trafficking expert and law professor at The Catholic University of America.
However, she told CNA, “other problems remain about our ability/political will to investigate allegations of forced labor.”
Although it may be impossible to estimate the exact number of goods produced with forced or child labor that are available to U.S. consumers, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has provided some context.
Almost 21 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor, the ILO says. 19 million of them are exploited by private corporations; 2 million suffer at the hands of the state. An estimated $150 billion a year is made in profits from forced labor.
The abuse extends across industries, Leary said: agriculture, manufacturing, shipping, service industries like janitorial services, construction, and fishing. Whether the culprits are sweat shops in Bangladesh, slave fishing in Indonesia, or mines in India, the raw materials gathered or processed by forced labor end up in U.S. stores.
Verité, a fair labor NGO and State Department grantee, released a report this year documenting the role of forced labor or child labor in 43 different commodities that are circulated worldwide, like flowers, produce, seafood, and metals. The report listed the chief offending countries for each commodity and the countries from which the U.S. imports these goods.
Investigations by The Guardian and the Associated Press in 2015 also made headlines, uncovering a shadowy network of slave fishing in Southeast Asia and Thailand which exports seafood worldwide.
The AP investigation traced some of this seafood all the way to U.S. businesses. Shrimp caught and processed with slave labor ended up in the supply chains of U.S. grocery stores, food distributors, and restaurants.
Conditions are horrible for forced laborers in Thai fishing boats and processing factories. The State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report explained the details.
“Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, and Indonesian men are subjected to forced labor on Thai fishing boats; some men remain at sea for several years, are paid very little or irregularly, work as much as 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week, or are threatened and physically beaten. Some victims of trafficking in the fishing sector were unable to return home due to isolated workplaces, unpaid wages, and the lack of legitimate identity,” the report explained.
Migrants from other countries like Burma and Cambodia are looking for work, and so they pay a broker who promises them a job but instead sells them to boat captains, Verité reported.
Other commodities like metals, diamonds, and produce that are imported into the U.S. may also be gathered and processed by child or slave laborers.
Flowers, for instance, are grown and picked in Ecuador with child labor and sent to the U.S. Around Valentine’s Day, when demand is greatest, workers endure up to 20-hour days with no overtime pay. Women are subjected to sexual violence and harassment with no ability to speak out.
With such a deep and nefarious global supply chain affecting almost every product that may be sold in U.S. stores, what exactly can Catholic consumers and businesses do to mitigate the influence of foreign companies who profit from labor trafficking?
Ultimately, ending human trafficking and slave labor will not come through charitable donations, but through the market, Dillon told CNA. $120 million is given annually to fight trafficking, but over a thousand times that is made in profits per year from slave labor – $150 billion.
Dillon’s group, Made in a Free World, works to help businesses fight trafficking by predicting where there might be forced labor in their supply chains. They do this through “predictive modeling” of almost 54,000 goods, services, and commodities and where the materials come from through trade routes. Their modeling tool is software called “FRDM” – “forced labor risk determination and mitigation” – available to businesses online.
The problematic companies that employ child laborers and forced laborers are more easily identified this way.
“The game we’re playing is to reverse the power of the marketplace to start to create transparency and make it more and more difficult for the bad guys, the bad companies, to be profitable,” Dillon said.
Businesses should be held accountable for their purchases, but no one is perfect, he continued.
Consumers shouldn’t be demonizing U.S. businesses where slave-produced goods unknowingly end up on shelves, but should rather be encouraging them as much as possible to investigate their supply chains and supporting the businesses who are making the best effort to do so, he said.
“We need the global marketplace on our side, not attack it.”
“Most companies have almost no idea what’s behind their initial purchase,” he continued.
For example, a U.S. company that sells tablet computers might buy finished tablets from a Chinese supplier.
However, “the optics beyond that supplier A, that first company where you’re buying, are almost invisible,” Dillon said. “You have very little idea of where supplier A is buying their components’ parts, and maybe even commodities to be able to produce that tablet computer for you.”
The most pragmatic thing for companies to do is “start to understand what your purchases are,” he said. Companies are starting to investigate their supply chains but it will take time to create a new marketplace, he cautioned. The most difficult struggle his group faces is from people who want a solution now.
“It’s very easy to be indignant and have a lot of bluster and demand justice, but the reality is this is going to take time,” he said. “Justice systems are just that, they are systems…built over time.”
Consumers can do two things now, he said. First, “be patient.” And second, “buy in the direction of freedom,” or support businesses with goods made with free laborers. Made in a Free World provides a list of businesses who are
They can also visit SlaveryFootprint.org, a project of Made in a Free World, to get an estimate of how many forced laborers produced the products they consume.
“I believe that we’re at the front third of a very, very important movement,” Dillon said, adding that “it’s not something we can do overnight.”
“I believe that justice is vigilance. It’s not an accomplishment. It’s a condition,” he said.