- Legal Limits: Ending Human Trafficking in Supply Chains
Over the last 15 years, thousands of men from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have endured brutal conditions on fishing boats, catching seafood that ends up in international supply chains. They have been lied to by recruiters, abused by captains, and forced to work on vessels for months at a time with little or no pay. Some have been killed. Thanks to the tireless work of civil society groups and recent media reports, the labor exploitation endemic to this industry in Southeast Asia is now fairly well-known, but it is just one example of a global problem. What is variously called human trafficking, forced labor, and modern-day slavery plagues supply chains, especially in agriculture, food processing, mining, construction, electronics industries, and apparel manufacturing.
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Though sex trafficking has been the primary focus of anti-trafficking efforts in the last two decades, concern about labor exploitation has been gaining momentum. Governments have responded by developing legal approaches aimed at preventing human trafficking in supply chains, mainly through the use of transparency laws requiring companies to disclose the measures they’ve taken to address the issue. Such laws are already found in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Brazil, and are under consideration in France.
Most of these laws require companies to self-report, as in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the proposed French legislation. For example, Section 54 of the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, “Transparency in Supply Chains,” requires every organization doing business in the country with a yearly turnover of at least 36 million pounds ($45 million) to produce an annual slavery and human trafficking statement. Each company must display the statement prominently on its website, and if a company does not have a web-site, it must make the written statement available within 30 days of a request. Similarly, Private Bill 501 in France would require a publicly available “vigilance plan” that details the ways in which a company identifies and prevents serious bodily injury, environmental damage, public health hazards, and infringing on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Rather than depending on self-reporting, the approach in Brazil relies on government disclosure. From December 2013 to December 2015, Brazil’s Ministry of Labor placed more than 300 companies found guilty of profiting from slavery into a public database. The companies stay on what is colloquially known as the lista suja, or “dirty list,” for two years, and are removed if they can prove they’ve cleaned up their supply chains. Businesses successfully challenged the “dirty list,” and it was temporarily suspended in late 2014. Two years later, though, the Supreme Court authorized its reinstatement, which was welcome news to activists who see the list as a powerful tool in the fight against slave labor.
In focusing on disclosure, transparency laws reflect a belief that the power of information and the leverage of consumer demand can help prevent human trafficking. Armed with knowledge about companies’ efforts to eradicate human trafficking in their supply chains, consumers will presumably reward the companies that are most ethical. The information disclosed can also be used by activists to demand social change and by businesses to collaborate with more reputable partners and invest in companies they deem trustworthy.
Civil society groups addressing human trafficking are supportive of transparency efforts and have lobbied for the inclusion of disclosure measures in both state-level and national laws. In interviews I conducted with directors, program managers, and staff in 30 anti-trafficking and other related organizations across Europe and the United States during the summer and fall of 2016, most of them told me that the laws are a big step forward. As one anti-trafficking advocate in the United States explained: “There’s been a push [by activists] for a long time to get a law in place so that corporations can have some obligations. It’s an important move in the right direction.”
Supporters see the...