Last week, President Obama issued a rather critically important executive order that attracted little to no attention in the US, perhaps because it didn’t deal directly with domestic issues, which are the all-consuming subject of interest for many people. The order, though, was important on a global and national relations scale, and it marked a key policy shift for the administration and the nation. In the document, the President not only clearly said that human trafficking would no longer be tolerated in the vast supply chain used by US government contractors around the world, but also set out clear guidance for accountability at all steps of the supply chain and what kinds of behaviours were and aren’t allowed.
Naturally, the GOP is whining about it. They claimed that the executive order ‘undermined’ a bipartisan bill that’s been slowly grinding through Congress, thereby taking fame and glory from the Republicans involved in the bill, even though, as the ACLU points out, the order can’t stand on its own, nor is it intended to. The End Trafficking in Government Contracting Act is still needed to create stronger penalties and a better mechanism for tracking contractors involved in US government work around the world in order to identify and swiftly act upon human rights violations.
The President noted that ‘As the largest single purchaser of goods and services in the world, the United States Government bears a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not contribute to trafficking in persons,’ and he’s absolutely right. Sadly, the US government has fallen down on the job in this respect over the decades, contributing to a shocking and appalling culture of human trafficking, particularly in war zones, conducted to serve the interests of the US government. War is already fought at a hard cost for government employees and US civilians working for contracting firms, but that’s just the beginning of the story.
For foreign nationals brought in from other nations for work (known as third country nationals or TCNs) and employed by contracting firms, there are fewer protections and a much higher risk of abuse and exploitation. And some of those ‘employees’ are actually human trafficking victims, working and living in conditions that approach slavery, and in some cases are slavery. And this is not occurring on a small and easily-ignored scale:
…supply chain compliance consultant Sindhu P. Kavinamannil and former federal prosecutor Sam McCahon estimate that ‘DOD contractors and their subcontractors in Iraq have victimized more than 250,000 men. That number does not include other agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, which uses TCN-contracted labor in support of its operations.’ (source)
People are misled or actively tricked into leaving their homelands to work in war zones or nations offering support services to the US military. Once there, their identification documents are confiscated and they’re threatened with reprisals for reporting labour and human rights abuses. They work long, harsh hours with minimal on-the-job safety, are provided with substandard food, and live in vile conditions. If this sounds familiar to you, it should: The same conditions are present in the United States with trafficked labour on farms, in sweatshops, and in settings like long-term care facilities.
Human trafficking is not a problem limited to war zones or government contractors, in other words, but this is definitely one facet of the problem, and it’s one that has long needed addressing. Even Congress has recognised that human trafficking by military contractors and subcontractors is an issue, and also noted that the problem was so large and complex in scope that it would require years of investigations and complex policy adjustments to eliminate the culture of human trafficking and protect workers. Human rights organisations around the world have pushed the US government to act on human trafficking, with minimal action thus far, and that’s what makes this executive order so important. On a symbolic level, it’s a critical move, and it could become important politically as well.
This is part of a larger trend towards mandates for supply chain accountability in the US, which is a good sign. Hitting companies and providers at every step of the supply chain and actually breaking down sourcing to identify offending labour sources is a critical way to combat the use of human trafficking in the production of goods and services; if the US government wants to take a zero tolerance stance and congratulate itself for protecting workers, it needs to show that it is committed to this stance. The President’s executive order is certainly a solid step in the right direction.
It includes provisions for guidance and training, supply chain control, specific prohibitions on the use of trafficked labour, and more. If it’s actually enforced, which is an entirely separate issue, it could become a key document and moment in US history, marking a shift in US government labour practices that treats TCN labour fairly, with respect, and with integrity. As a nation that claims to be a world leader in human rights, such a measure is long past-due, and as the government takes responsibility for its labour sourcing, it could create a model for the private sector to do the same.
This executive order, after all, barely scratches the surface of labour reforms needed inside and outside the US, where immigrant labourers are exploited and abused with few repercussions to squeeze as much labour out of them as possible before they’re discarded, dumped back in their home nations or abandoned where they are, often without the wages and benefits they were promised.
Can we eliminate human trafficking from the supply chain? It’s most certainly going to be difficult, but that’s no reason not to try, and this could just possibly be a watershed moment.