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Obama Administration Honors Coalition of Immokalee Workers for Fight Against Forced Labor; Strengthens Regulations to Combat Trafficking

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charlie fanningForced labor and human trafficking exist in worksites and industries where workers’ rights are routinely violated and where a culture of exploitation reigns. In the tomato fields of Florida, more than 1,200 farm workers once toiled in conditions of forced labor. However, thanks to the organizing efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), these workers now have respect on the job, higher wages and a say on the job.

Doug Molloy, former chief assistant U.S. attorney for southwest Florida, told the Fort Myers News-Press that the CIW:

“As the eyes and ears and conscience of the community, they helped liberate more slaves and helped develop more successful prosecutions than any other group of people I am aware of in all the work I have done in human trafficking.”

In recognition of CIW’s work to end a system of exploitation, Secretary of State John Kerry recently presented the 2015 Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking in Persons to the CIW. Said Kerry:

“They’ve helped uncover and investigate several farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States. I hope everybody hears that: farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States.”

CIW has fought for the rights of Florida’s farm workers for more than 20 years and has pioneered a worker-based social responsibility model, the Fair Food Program, to include workers in addressing exploitation and abuse and to eradicate forced labor in Florida’s tomato fields. CIW’s highly successful program leverages the buying of major corporations and strong consumer awareness to increase the price of tomatoes a “penny per pound” to raise farm worker wages.

The scope of the problem extends much more broadly than Florida’s tomato fields. Forced labor and human trafficking pervade the supply chains of many of the most recognizable brands today. Often, the chain of actors involved in forced labor enterprises runs from the recruitment of workers in local communities into factories in the supply chains of multinational enterprises, which are able to evade responsibility for abuses through layers of subcontracting and distanced staffing arrangements. With nearly 21 million people worldwide in conditions of forced labor, the issue of eliminating forced labor and trafficking in supply chains is one of the world’s most pressing human rights concerns. It also puts ethical businesses on an unleveled playing field and greatly concerns government officials in charge of contracting and procurement.

Kerry, at the award ceremony, said:

“The sources of the problem include individuals desperate for work; unscrupulous labor brokers who lie to recruit those workers; companies greedy for profits, who turn a blind eye to abuses; and customers looking to just save that extra dollar or two without regard to what the implications of those savings may be.”

In 2012, the Obama administration issued the Executive Order “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts” and, last week, published updates today to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)—the set of rules in place to govern the activities of government contractors—as required by the Executive Order. The updates establish a number of new safeguards and provide compliance guidance to businesses.

Both measures prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from confiscating passports or charging workers recruitment fees or using misleading or fraudulent recruitment practices (a common way for unscrupulous labor brokers to put workers in conditions of debt bondage and forced labor), and they require contractors and subcontractors to develop and maintain a compliance plan and to certify to eliminate forced labor in their operations. These new regulations are largely modeled on successful business practices and the input from the AFL-CIO, labor unions, civil society organizations, federal contractors and academia.

The Executive Order and FAR update are major steps forward in the fight against forced labor and human trafficking. But as CIW reminds us, it must be workers at the center of any enforcement mechanism, enforcing their own rights and having their voice heard. We can only hope that the administration’s example will be followed by U.S. lawmakers who have the power to expand these regulations to the private sector and by other governments and corporations that seek to end this scourge.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Charlie Fanning is the Global Advocacy and Research coordinator for the AFL-CIO


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Financing Forced Labor in the Cotton Fields of Uzbekistan

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To most families in the United States, early September means back to school and heading to the football or soccer fields. To Uzbekistan’s families, September means the government forces many adults and children into the fields to pick cotton. Since this year’s harvest began, three young people have died. The youngest was a six-year-old boy, Amirbek Rachmatow, who suffocated under a pile of cotton on Sept. 15.

Under a Soviet-style command economy, the government of Uzbekistan orders farmers to plant the cash crop, pays them below-market prices for it and forces students, teachers and workers from both the public and private sector into the fields to pick the cotton. Those who refuse face repression, ranging from beatings, expulsion from school, loss of employment or access to public services to increased taxes. According to a June 2013 report of the U.S. Embassy there, “The Government of Uzbekistan remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.” Recognizing this fact, the United States downgraded Uzbekistan this June to the lowest classification for countries’ efforts to eliminate the modern forms of slavery known as trafficking in persons.

In all too many parts of the global economy, workers’ rights violations are accepted as “business as usual.” In this part of this particular supply chain, however, labor unions like those of the AFL-CIO, human rights groups and some business organizations and socially responsible investors that participate in The Cotton Campaign have together argued that Uzbekistan’s way of doing business is unacceptable. The campaign has brought pressure on Uzbekistan by working with some major corporations in this supply chain and through some national governments to stop forced labor in the Uzbek cotton Industry. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor released its most recent critical evaluation of child labor in the cotton fields on Sept. 30, 2013. At the International Labor Organization (ILO), both worker and employer representatives have made the case a priority in annual hearings on the world’s worst workers’ rights violations since 2010, finally securing entry for ILO experts to monitor this year’s harvest.

However, recent missteps by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank show that international financial organizations remain slow to defend the most fundamental human rights for workers, citizens and children. Over the past five years, the World Bank has regularly and indiscriminately financed agricultural development projects in Uzbekistan, failing to ensure that funds do not contribute to the cotton industry that depends heavily on forced labor. During the very same weeks this fall, when more than a million children and adults, so many in Uzbekistan, were forced into the cotton fields and three young people died, the Asian Development Bank approved a loan to the government of Uzbekistan for irrigation systems that will benefit the cotton production that is underpinned by government-orchestrated forced labor. Among others in the coalition, Human Rights Watch and civil society groups from Uzbekistan have worked to press these development banks to play a positive role in economic development in Uzbekistan rather than facilitate forced labor and child labor.

The United States and other countries finance these institutions and have a vote on their governing bodies. They should use that vote in the future to demand that Uzbekistan improve its labor rights and human rights practices before receiving financing. In addition, member countries of the ILO must insist that reporting produced by the ILO monitors reflect the harsh reality of the harvest as much as possible.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on October 3, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:  Brian Finnegan is a Global Worker Rights coordinator for the AFL-CIO.


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