Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Wed, 28 Nov 2012 10:00 GMT
By Lisa Anderson
NEW YORK (
TrustLaw) – An executive order strengthening U.S. efforts to eliminate human trafficking and modern slavery from the federal government’s supply chain is feasible, doable and will not break the bank, a leading expert says.
In September, President Barack Obama announced The Executive Order Strengthening Protections in Federal Contracts, which lays out specific requirements for any firm that wants to do business with the government.
They include measures to avoid charging workers recruitment fees, misleading employees about wages, overtime pay, the location and nature of the work and destroying or confiscating an employee’s passport or other identification documents.
Dan Viederman, the chief executive officer of Verite, which works to end labour injustices around the globe, spent six months helping the Obama administration craft the order, drawing on his organisation’s experience of helping companies such as Apple to identify and stop labour abuses.
More than 20 million people are trapped in forced labour worldwide, according to the International Labour Organisation. Obama has called it “one of the great human rights causes of our time”.
The size of their presence within federal supply chains is unknown but the
U.S.government is the world’s single largest purchaser of goods and services.
Viederman said concerns from businesses that implementing the order – which applies to all federal contractors and subcontractors in the United States and around the world - would be unfeasible and too expensive were unfounded, adding that progress had been made in the private sector.
“We can demonstrate that they can be addressed and we’ve addressed them with multinationals in their supply chains,” Viederman told
TrustLaw in an interview.
U.S. procurement is most vulnerable where it is procuring people, rather than goods, to provide services and particularly where it is procuring people from poor countries…for places where they are isolated,” he said.
Viederman said the new guidelines would require a process to be set up that would allow employees to report abuses without fear of retaliation. At the moment, for example, workers on
U.S. military bases have no formal way of reporting complaints of unfair or abusive labour practices – there is no grievance procedure in place.
Viederman said in the course of Verité’s work carrying out social audits on factories around the world, the organisation found a notable correlation between the presence of foreign migrant workers and illegal working conditions.
“And when we traced the root cause, it was debt. (Workers) are in debt because they generally have to pay high fees in order to get a job. We’ve encountered fees as high as $27,000 for a Southeast Asian worker coming into the
U.S.” he said.
Because wages are low, with some jobs paying only about $200 every two weeks, a worker essentially winds up indentured to pay off this debt.
Viederman said while it may not be possible to ensure that every supplier is complying with new regulations set out in the executive order, suppliers can demonstrate a willingness to tackle slavery by hiring an outside firm to audit the supply chain for abuses or by working with recruitment services run by foreign governments rather than with local brokers and their subcontractors at the village level.
“What we want from a business is to demonstrate that they understand the risk and they have taken steps to address this risk,” Viederman said.
Despite Viederman’s optimism that the executive order would improve labour conditions for many workers, he cited two immediate obstacles to eradicating modern slavery from federal supply chains.
“First of all, most businesses in the world still do not know that labour recruitment can lead to severe human rights abuses in their own operations,” Viederman said.
The second hurdle was the desperation of the workers themselves.
“The possibility of making a lot of money overseas instead of staying at home and continuing to live in absolute poverty, with no money to send your kids to school or even to feed them - that opportunity is hard to turn away from for workers,” Viederman said. “It leads them to do all sorts of things that most of us would consider risky.”
This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation special report ontrafficking and modern day slavery.