It looks like several Western governments are getting more serious about cracking down on forced labor in supply chains.
Here are some notable mentions targeting forced labor
The U.S. has cracked down, for example, on imports from China’s Xinjang region, aggressively curtailing association with repressive treatment of the Uyghur minorities (including children), both in and out of internment camps and subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment, abuse, and torture. Their labor has been used in a wide variety of goods ranging from cotton products to electronics, food, PPE, and solar power equipment.
The European Union is seeking to block goods tainted by forced labor from entering their common market. New legislation allows any actor to lodge a complaint of suspected labor abuses to the national authority responsible for investigating imports in any EU country. This is a potentially powerful avenue for advocacy for victims to seek redress, especially for people in countries that have lax labor oversight or otherwise unfavorable political or legal conditions for lodging complaints over labor rights violations.
For example, in 2021, France opened investigations against retailers including Uniqlo, Zara, Skechers, and others for claims of reliance on forced labor from the aforementioned Uyghur minorities in China to produce cotton, spurring a difficult case to prosecute because the repression there is so complete it’s nearly impossible to do due diligence and conduct independent audits. These investigations even prompted a French city to reject Zara’s attempts to expand and build a branch there.
Both France and Germany have buttressed their efforts with legislation that requires large employers to perform due diligence on human rights abuses in their supply chains.
The UK and Australia are tightening their existing legislation as well.
And now Canada is joining the ranks, with a law set to take effect in March, requiring companies with 250 or more employees to report their efforts on due diligence.
On the one hand, this growth of attempts is promising, and will hopefully lead to knock-on effects, where to do business effectively in critical markets, it just becomes better business sense to do business ethically – for example, it might be better business sense to source cotton from countries that support due diligence and avoid having to fight for due diligence in areas where it’s difficult or impossible to do so. Hopefully this also creates pressure for further action – in other countries, or in other sectors – as businesses start to require more support to meet these legal imperatives. Hopefully we can build a situation where it is viewed as more costly to allow abuses than it is to curtail them.
On the other hand, these efforts still look piecemeal, targeting forced labor in some places but not others. Or, for example, lacking teeth as in Canada’s case, which requires reporting on due diligence, but not the actual performance of due diligence.
Meanwhile, there continue to be forces that push in the opposite direction. Some state legislatures in Minnesota and Iowa, for example, want to loosen the restrictions on child labor and workplace safety.
Can we repeat that for a moment? They want to make it easier to rely on child labor – allowing teenagers to work in some of the most dangerous sectors, such as on construction sites and in meatpacking plants. Employable adults want better pay and better working conditions, but rather than increase pay and benefits, companies are seeking to turn to the next available source of cheap labor: children. And some legislators in these states actually support this.
Meanwhile, in Wyoming, some legislators are fighting against their own party on legislation to raise the minimum age to marry to 18. Child marriages are often situations that mask abuse, forcing underage people to marry to cover up sexual relations or pregnancies to protect the family’s honor, or allowing significantly older men to marry children. (Note: California is also one of the few states that does not specify a legal minimum age for marriage – children under 18 can marry with the consent of their parents, subject to review by a judge.)
Here’s How This All Connects
To be clear, this is precisely the kind of mentality we’re trying to change where we work – the belief that children are an acceptable source of labor and the belief that the family’s honor or shame is more important than a young person’s freedom of self-determination. These are precisely the types of beliefs that enable and fuel trafficking. It’s easy and tempting to believe the laws that were enacted to protect children were sacrosanct – and settled. But they are not.
A pervasive and bedrock belief in the importance of educating children and valuing their bodily autonomy is a belief that protects children from trafficking and exploitation. The belief that exploitative labor is off-limits is a belief that helps protect children from trafficking.
We need these legal frameworks that provide structure to protect children and other vulnerable people from exploitation – they provide measures for accountability. But alone, they will never suffice without a culture that believes, to its core, that everyone, including children, is valuable and has a right to basic dignity, and those basic dignities must be protected.