In Thailand thousands of "sea slaves," held captive in shoddy fishing vessels, trawl for cheap forage fish used in canned pet food. In Pakistan, children as young as five are sold or kidnapped and forced to stand knee-deep in water, packing clay into molds to make bricks. In Ghana, poisonous dust and exposure to toxic chemicals and mine collapses threaten the health and safety of children who work in the artisanal gold mines.
Slavery, a practice successfully eradicated in the 19th century, is today a flourishing underworld, generating a whopping $150 billion in illegal profits each year, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Approximately 21 million people around the world — about 3 out of every 1,000 individuals, 5 million of them children — are victims of forced labor, according to the most recent estimate, up from 12.3 million in 2005, the ILO reports.
"Trafficking in persons … is one of the largest income sources for international criminals, second only to drug trafficking," said U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week to address the issue of modern slavery.
Over the past 16 years, numerous laws and conventions have been passed, including the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime — also known as the Palermo Protocol. But while countries have steadily been increasing their commitment to address slavery, many challenges remain.
Now there's new hope: In a bold move last week, President Obama signed H.R. 644, the "Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015," which includes an amendment to close the loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930 allowing goods produced from slaves to enter the U.S. if American production could not meet 100 percent consumer demand.
"[H.R. 644] has an important signaling effect that the U.S. government has an interest in curtailing the worst forms of labor rights abuse in global supply chains … particularly looking at issues in aquaculture and fishing," said Sarah Labowitz, co-founder and co-director of the NYU Stern Center for business and human rights.
The new ruling bars U.S. imports of goods made by convict, forced or indentured labor — a move that may have a profound impact on U.S. companies using foreign suppliers.
In his statement, President Obama said the act "will strengthen trade enforcement at our ports, improve our ability to combat evasion of our enforcement actions, and improve transparency, accountability, and coordination in enforcement efforts. … The act provides new tools and authorities for U.S. companies and workers to more effectively hold our trading partners accountable — now and into the future — and press for the investigation of cases of duty evasion."
The ruling, which goes into effect on March 10, will give enforcement agencies more latitude to investigate companies suspicious of forced and child labor. Yet experts say it won't come without its challenges.
"Like all regulations, it relies on enforcement, and enforcement relies on actionable intelligence," said Benjamin Skinner, author of "A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery" and founder of Transparentem, a nonprofit intelligence unit that investigates slavery and other crimes in corporate supply chains.
Labowitz said that although the reporting requirement within the bill will have an important organizing effect, it also points to the need for bigger and even more comprehensive solutions to address the problem.
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"The standard of proof will be difficult to meet," Labowitz said, adding, "How do you demonstrate that a particular shipment of a particular commodity was produced with convict, forced or indentured labor? The bill doesn't come with increased resources to deal with this. It's going to take a coordinated effort on the part of the brands, the suppliers, government, financial solutions. You can't just police the first-tier suppliers."
Dr. Shawn MacDonald, director of programs and research at Verité, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping companies build sustainable solutions into their supply chains to ensure that people around the world work under safe, fair and legal conditions, is optimistic.
While he believes that government enforcement agencies will have to "reinvent themselves" to address the issue and it will take a lot of corroboration to help turn the tide, the good news, he says, is that customs enforcement people now have sophisticated mechanisms for tracing supply chains. "They are doing it to counter terrorism, to counter drugs, to counter counterfeiting measures, so I think they are very sophisticated on those things," he said.
A look at the demographics of modern slavery reveals alarming truths.
Of the $150 billion in illegal revenue, $99 billion comes from commercial sexual exploitation, claims the ILO. Yet just 22 percent of the victims, or 4.5 million people, are trafficked for that specific purpose. Sixty-eight percent — or 14.2 million — are exploited in the private economy by individuals or enterprises and forced to work involuntarily as traffickers employ debt bondage, document confiscation, physical abuse and other tactics to keep them hostage, the ILO reports.