It’s more common than you might think. Seeking a means to provide for themselves and their families, millions of people routinely put their fate in the hands of brokers who promise factory, fishing, farming, hospitality or healthcare jobs overseas. They leave their country, greeted in a strange land not by honest employers but by traffickers. They are now bonded laborers who are told they must work to pay off their debt under threat of violence. Sometimes that “work” is commercial sex. Against their will, by force, fraud or coercion, they have become slaves.
The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million men, women and children are victims of forced labor at any point in time. Although a person does not need to be physically transported to be subject to slavery, 29 percent of victims end up in forced labor after moving across international borders.
$150 Billion in Illicit Profits – Every Year
In small numbers, we should be concerned. But this is no small problem. According to the Alliance to End Slavery and Human Trafficking, human trafficking is one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world, generating an estimated $150 billion in illicit profits annually.
In the United States, January has been designated National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. To recognize the 20th anniversary of the landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the White House held a Summit on Human Trafficking on January 31.
The summit culminated in the signing of an executive order to improve prevention, increase prosecutions, and strengthen protections for victims in the United States, recognizing that “millions of individuals are trafficked around the world each year — including into…the United States.”
To combat it requires a comprehensive government effort involving labor and criminal enforcement, public services to aid victims, counter-trafficking policies and programming in overseas assistance, intelligence and diplomatic coordination – and trade policy.
Trade Policy and Trafficking
As far back as the Tariff Act of 1930, the United States prohibits the importation of foreign goods made by means of slave labor. But more recently, Congress has debated whether the United States should grant trading privileges to governments that do not respect human rights or fail to combat trafficking. That question featured in the annual debate over whether to grant “most favored nation” trading status to China before it entered the WTO. It arose again when some Members of Congress questioned whether Malaysia should be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.
The U.S. State Department spearheads an annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report to assess the extent to which our and other governments are making efforts to meet minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking. On that basis, countries are placed into one of three tiers or on a watch list. “Tier 1” countries are deemed compliant with minimum standards under TVPA for making “serious and sustained efforts” to eliminate human trafficking.
On the other end of the spectrum, governments on “Tier 3” do not fully meet the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. A country in Tier 3 may be restricted from receiving certain U.S. foreign aid, though the president may issue a partial or full waiver, particularly if withholding such assistance would cause adverse effects to vulnerable populations. The concept of withholding benefits to Tier 3 countries has also been applied to trade.
A “Principal” Trade Negotiating Objective
The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 as amended (the legislation that gives the executive branch its trade negotiating mandate and authority) added a principal trade negotiating objective on human rights. The expedited voting procedures afforded to trade deals under the Act can be conditioned on progress toward achieving this objective.
More powerful a lever, the Act explicitly prohibits applying so-called “fast track” voting on trade agreements with countries ranked on Tier 3 of the TIP Report.
However, the Act was amended to allow the President to submit a waiver to Congress. The waiver is not meant to rest its case on new, untested commitments. Rather, it should describe “concrete steps” that country has taken to implement recommendations in the TIP report and should include supporting documentation. To date, no country has been denied a trade deal on this basis.
Free Trade Begins with Free
Trafficking in humans is an abomination and the worst form of illicit trade. Some policymakers believe that trading with the United States is a powerful incentive to government action and is therefore an effective tool to deploy as a punishment or carrot to improve human rights. Others argue that engagement in trade opportunities should not be withheld, lest it hold back economic progress in places and for people who need it the most.
Human rights as customary international law came into being and “grew up” alongside the international trade regime after WWII. The primacy of human rights over trade liberalization obligations is consistent with trade law itself, which explicitly provides exceptions where necessary to protect human life.
Wherever the debate comes out on how to use trade agreements and policies to promote human rights, we can all agree that free trade begins with free. The human right to be free will always come prior to free trade.
Dive Deeper: Trafficking in Persons Report 2019
Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fifteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.