By Shawn MacDonald, Verité
[Originally appearing at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre here.]
In the collective American mind, stories of labor rights abuses normally take place “over there” on the frontlines of globalization: firetrap factories in South Asia, children mining precious metals in Africa, union organizers assassinated on tropical plantations, human trafficking victims constructing stadiums in a World Cup host city. As we reckon with the fact that such illegality and abuse is happening in an American heartland town or the food processing, packaging, and other light manufacturing hubs that ring every metropolitan area in the country, it forces us to question the immediate trust afforded by the Made in USA tag.
Even as labor abuses have come to light in one emerging market country after another, we have long ignored the warnings from frontline advocates about similar conditions in the US. And while some high-profile companies have been pushed to build basic compliance systems abroad, there has not been a concomitant call and response for accountability for workplace conditions in the US.
A frequently noted structural flaw in globalization is that weak rule of law in many countries—rich and poor—provides relative impunity for companies despoiling the environment and exploiting laborers. Much effort has gone into holding companies accountable for subpar conditions in foreign supply chains precisely because there has been little or no local legal accountability and minimal effective global rules to enforce basic standards. Recent explosive media coverage on migrant child labor in the US has scrutinized the lack of government policy and regulation implementation, lambasting the administration for turning a blind eye to the red flags.
However, simply because a government isn’t managing its immigration and labor force dynamics well isn’t license to exploit a refugee, child migrant or trafficking victim caught up in those dysfunctions. Governments must step up and enforce basic labor protections, yet companies must do so regardless of how well the government manages to do its job. Indeed, as many US states are weakening child labor laws, companies must double-down on due diligence in such contexts to ensure their suppliers are resisting the open invitation to exploitation.
In an ironic twist on the notion of American exceptionalism, we now face the prospect of applying remedial actions for child labor and human trafficking in the US which have been developed (however imperfectly) mostly “over there”. Tested methods are used in places like Nepal to verify age and responsibly remove and rehabilitate a child found in hazardous labor. Worker recruitment systems are slowly evolving in Southeast Asia so migrants no longer pay for their own recruitment costs and become trapped in debt bondage. Forward-thinking companies are pledging to pay living wages in many developing countries, precisely because those governments cannot be counted on to fairly set minimum wages. US employers should quickly sort out how to learn from the creative efforts of global civil society groups, unions, companies, and workers that have pioneered practical ways to improve workplace standards.
The sharp increase in media attention, combined with the steady undercurrent of civil society activism, has led to swift reactions from the current administration, including plans to crack down on child migrant labor violations. While media accounts that call out brands and companies by name bring attention, there isn’t enough focus on how the onus is just as much on the companies as it is on government bodies to ensure systems that minimize risk of abuse and violation of vulnerable populations, like child migrants.
Global trends toward more accountability will hit US soon
In addition to replicable models from around the world, there are positive trends reshaping the risk calculus for corporate liability in global supply chains, including for business operations here in the US. The US government and several major economic partners, including the European Union, are implementing or considering a range of trade, procurement, and mandatory due diligence and transparency regulations on human and labor rights. These mechanisms are already showing promise in harnessing government scale, resources, and authority that is making it impossible for corporate leaders to look the other way.
For instance, investors and C-suite executives across all sectors must now pay close attention as the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ramps up enforcement of a sweeping Tariff Act ban on the importation of goods made with forced labor and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. These new approaches to global supply chain problems must be matched by more effective domestic labor rights enforcement.
Whether that happens from Washington and state capitals or not, the emerging global supply chain regulations noted above will soon be felt by American businesses like those profiled in the recent news accounts of child labor and trafficking. They will soon face the real possibility of Canadian or Mexican customs officials blocking their goods from entering those key markets due to forced labor concerns. Or European Union companies will shy away from buying from them because of new information gleaned from imminent EU requirements for publicly reported due diligence processes. Dysfunctional immigration policies and ineffective implementation of domestic labor laws by past, present, or future US Administrations will not be an excuse for lack of private corporate action. It’s both easy and correct to blame governments at home and abroad for poor enforcement of workplace standards, but the private sector must not abrogate its responsibilities waiting for government action.
Shawn MacDonald, Ph.D. is CEO of Verité, a civil society organization that promotes labor rights in global supply chains. He has spent more than 25 years advocating for effective labor policies and practices with governments, corporations, and aid agencies.