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U.S. urged to get tougher on companies over forced labor abroad

by Christine Murray | @chrissiemurray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 13 January 2021 20:24 GMT

FILE PHOTO: American flags fly on National Mall with U.S. Capitol on background as high-wind weather conditions continue in Washington, U.S. March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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Anti-trafficking tsars discuss policy as United States announces ban on cotton and tomato imports from China's Xinjiang region

By Christine Murray

Jan 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States must do more to prevent forced labor and exploitation in the global supply chains of U.S. companies, current and former anti-trafficking ambassadors said on Wednesday, days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Holding companies liable for child labor committed overseas and compelling businesses to outline measures taken to ensure their operations are slavery-free were among the suggestions during a virtual panel hosted by the U.S. State Department.

The recommendations came as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it would ban all cotton and tomato imports from China's Xinjiang region over allegations they are made with forced labor from Uighur Muslims detained in camps.

The latest and strongest action to-date by the United States against China follows measures this week by Britain and Canada on goods from Xinjiang. China denies mistreatment and says the camps are vocational training centers needed to fight extremism.

Brands in the United States and beyond are facing growing pressure from campaigners and consumers to ensure that their global operations and products are not tainted by labor abuses.

"There's a lot of work to be done around making sure that companies aren't as loose in interrogating their supply chains," said current ambassador John Richmond, who was appointed to his role by President Trump in October 2018.

Richmond and Luis C.deBaca - who held the post from 2009 to 2015 - cited the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) as a potentially helpful model for stamping out forced labor.

The FCPA prohibits U.S. citizens and companies from paying bribes to foreign officials to obtain or keep business.

"Without a regulatory structure, the CSR model of corporate social responsibility ends up being a bit of a feel-good exercise," deBaca said.

Corporate accountability could also be improved by allowing businesses to be held liable for child labor in overseas supply chains, said Susan Coppedge, who was in post from 2015 to 2017.

Supreme Court hearing last month involving Cargill Inc and a Nestle SA subsidiary examined whether former child slaves from Mali could proceed with a lawsuit against the food corporations.

Mark Lagon, who held the job from 2007 to 2009, said supply chain transparency requirements for companies like those in California and Britain should be considered at a federal level.

President Trump made human trafficking a signature issue but activists criticized his administration's emphasis on sexual exploitation and an anti-immigration stance that led to fewer "T-visas" for foreign victims and their families.

Biden has been urged by NGOs to shift the focus of anti-trafficking work to labor exploitation and change immigration policy to improve support for victims from abroad.

"Preserving bipartisanship is the key," Lagon said in response to a question on keeping trafficking a priority during the transition of power. "One thing that's important is ... to try an make sure there isn't score settling (between parties)."

An estimated 20 million people are victims of forced labor around the world while 4.8 million are trafficked for sex, according to the rights group Walk Free. The group estimates there are at least 400,000 modern slaves in the United States.

Related stories:

U.S. criticized over top anti-trafficking ranking despite failings

Trump declares anti-human trafficking push but some stay away

U.S. puts China at top of forced labor list

(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Kieran Guilbert Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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