Colombo, December 28: The problem of “forced labor” which comes under the general rubric of “human trafficking” came into focus again after US President Joe Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention (UFLP) Bill on December 23. The UFLP Act is meant to ensure that goods made with “forced labor” in the Xinjiang province of China do not enter the US market.
The law followed reports of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities being subjected to “forced labor and other atrocities”. It is meant to prevent US businesses and consumers from becoming complicit in the practice. Earlier this year, State Department had dubbed the “atrocities” against the Uyghurs as “genocide”.
The US Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (OMCTP) had said that China has an “official policy” of forced labor through mass arbitrary detention of more than one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslims in Xinjiang. Among other charges, the OMCTP said that there is “deceptive recruitment into debt bondage; arbitrary wage garnishing or withholding; contract irregularities; confiscation of travel and identity documentation; forced overtime; resignation penalties; intimidation and threats; physical violence; denial of access to urgent medical care; poor working and living conditions; restricted freedom of movement and external communication; and retaliation for reported abuses, among others
Disputing US contentions, a Xinhua commentary pointed out that there has been “no terrorist incident in Xinjiang over the past five years; absolute poverty has been eliminated and people enjoy prosperous lives protected by the law; the population is growing steadily; social stability is bringing more dividends.” China’s top legislature charged that the US is the “epicenter of human trafficking and forced labor, with as many as 100,000 people trafficked to the United States annually for forced labor in the past five years.” It warned that China would take “resolute and forceful countermeasures.”
According to Modern Slavery and Human Rights (July 2021), Nike and H&M were facing a backlash in China over statements related to forced labor in Xinjiang. The Chinese government had imposed a wide range of sanctions on foreign individuals and entities that were explicitly in response to sanctions imposed on or in relation to Xinjiang.
“If an import ban covers an entire region or sector, it will affect all exporting businesses regardless of whether or not they use forced labor. It may also reduce export profits and thereby driving down wages. Reduced wages may then contribute to an elevated risk of forced labor. Bans may be subject to challenge under global trade rules. A claim that a ban violates WTO obligations may lead to a possible dispute,” the document warned.
Applied to secure a geopolitical objective, the US sanction is bound to secure a geopolitical response which could be equally damaging.
Problem is Universal
According to the ILO, forced labor is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” By this yardstick, forced labor or human trafficking is a universal problem. The joint 2017 report of the ILO, the Walk Free Foundation and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that in 2016, 24.9 million people were into forced labor across the world. Of these, 4.8 million were in forced sexual exploitation and 4.1 million were in forced labor imposed by state authorities.
Western nations are equally guilty of using forced labor. Writing in Time.Com in 2016, Chandran Nair pointed out modern-day slavery comes from the capitalistic search for competitive advantage. “Today, the successors of the slave trade are getting rich by trafficking young men and women across the Mediterranean to Europe, smuggling Central American families under the American border, or trapping the desperate poor in South Asian or Southeast Asian sweatshops, making ever cheaper goods to satisfy the never-ending appetite of the global consumer. Take the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory of Bangladesh. These workers were toiling in terrible conditions in order to make clothing for such global brands as J.C. Penney, Inditex, Mango and Benetton.”
“What needs to be remembered is that the global economic order demands cheap goods and services. Goods and services cannot be provided cheaply without cheap labor, whether it is the poorly paid tea plucker in Assam or the maidservant in Singapore. Multinational companies make their money from buying tea for less than $5 per kg in India and selling it for over $250 in Harrods, or from the Chinese migrant worker paid $3 per hour to make a $750 iPhone. The laborer is paid only what the free market considers fair — and, oftentimes, not even that. Such is the nature of the global economy and the part it plays in modern-day slavery,” Nair said.
“Many investigations in America have revealed rampant abuse in Californian farms. But even if Western countries target slavery within their own borders, they have shied away from examining how their economic and foreign policies create the conditions for slavery abroad,” he added.
That forced labor is a problem in the US was admitted by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on July 1 when releasing the 2021 Trafficking in Persons report. Blinken said: “This is something many countries need to grapple with, including the United States. Part of doing right by our people means taking a hard look at the ways that our history and our policies have created the conditions for crimes like human trafficking, because traffickers prey on those who are vulnerable – those who are less likely to have access to good jobs or educational opportunities, who are less likely to be treated as equal by police or the justice system, and who are less likely to be believed when they report that they’re being targeted or abused. If we’re serious about ending trafficking in persons, we must also work to root out systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, and to build a more equitable society in every dimension.”
Research on forced labor in the US say that traffickers compel victims to engage in commercial sex and to work in both legal and illicit industries and sectors, including in hospitality, traveling sales crews, agriculture, janitorial services, construction, landscaping, restaurants, factories, care for persons with disabilities, salon services, massage parlors, retail services, fairs and carnivals, peddling and begging, drug smuggling and distribution, religious institutions, child care, and domestic work.
During the pandemic, landlords forced their women tenants to have sex with them when the tenant could not pay the rent. All this when the US and European countries have stringent labor laws. In the US the law prohibits the use of a debt as a form of coercion to compel a person’s labor. The domestic work place is conducive to exploitation because authorities cannot inspect private homes as easily as formal workplaces.
Sexploitation of Kids
The US National Human Trafficking Hotline (www.ecaptusa.org), has reported commercial sexual exploitation of children including pre-pubescent children. The kids are raped and photographs or videos of this are sold. Nearly 26,500 runaways were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 2020. One in 6 runaways were likely victims of child sex trafficking. Children, who had run away are highly vulnerable child sex trafficking.
According to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), in 2020, there were 365,348 NCIC entries for missing children. In 2019, the total number of missing children entries into NCIC was 421,394. 2020 was a record-breaking year, with more than 21.7 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation made to NCMEC’s CyberTipline.
While the Western nations’-led movement against forced labor is laudable, sanctions should not make the poor poorer. They should not be used to secure a geopolitical objective at the cost of the poor. They should also introspect about conditions in their own societies.