Was Your Stuff Made by Slave Labor? It's Not Always Easy to Tell

There are 21 million slave workers in the world, and some of their products end up in the U.S.

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Chinese workers stand outside a police station after being rescued from a year of slave labor at a brickworks. (Reuters)

The latest estimates by the International Labor Organization state that nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labor--and a significant amount of this suffering is fueled by every day products available on American shelves.

In Bloomberg Business Week, E. Benjamin Skinner documents how fish caught by slaves made their way onto plates in the United States. The path is convoluted: Indonesian recruiters deceived desperate men looking for work. Ship captains on the Korean Melilla 203 ship abused the laborers--forcing them to toil for as long as thirty consecutive hours, subjecting them to sexual abuse, and refusing to properly compensate them. New Zealand companies purchased the fish (and New Zealand environmental inspectors reportedly overlooked the slavery and responded to a plea for help by saying, "Not my job"). Finally, U.S. distributors bought the catch, which wound up on American dinner tables.

By ratifying the Trafficking in Persons protocol to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (TIP protocol), 151 countries around the world have agreed to criminalize human trafficking within their borders. Article 10 of the protocol also commits states to exchange information with foreign authorities and cooperate with foreign law enforcement agencies to prevent and detect human trafficking.

Meanwhile, at sea, the vast majority of major economies engaged in global trade have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). (The United States stands as an important exception and is not party to UNCLOS, but has ratified the TIP Protocol.) Part VII, Article 99 of that accord requires states "to take effective measures to prevent and punish the transport of slaves in ships authorized to fly its flag."

And yet, these international frameworks are loosely monitored and do not foster enough cooperation among international law enforcement agencies. In particular, this case underscores one of globalization's major challenges: the number of sovereign jurisdictions involved in one crime. Indonesian authorities were either not aware of the crime, or chose to overlook it. Korean authorities, under whose flag the ship sailed, did not investigate the labor standards onboard Melilla 203 (South Korea has not ratified the TIP protocol, but did neglect its treaty obligations under the UNCLOS, which it has ratified). And New Zealand authorities failed to identify the slave labor on ships docked in their harbor.

Human trafficking is notoriously difficult to investigate and prosecute due to its clandestine nature, corruption of local authorities, mobility of traffickers, and underreporting because victims fear for their safety or that of their families. However, challenges are compounded when only one country oversees a single link in the chain.  Separate law enforcement agencies charged with investigating and prosecuting crimes are constrained by national boundaries, while the illicit actors permeate borders with ease. The regime is wildly vulnerable to exploitation.

Presented by

Isabella Bennett is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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