Eradicating Modern Slavery Requires Modern Methods
For decades, the United States and its allies have sought to purge the global trade in forced labor products, with the United States first codifying the ban in the Tariff Act of 1982.
And for decades, we’ve worn jeans made with cotton yarn produced by interned Uyghurs, the Muslim minority in western China; we ate chocolate bars made from cocoa beans dragged on the backs of children in the Ivory Coast; we washed our hair with shampoo made from palm oil collected by workers trapped in oil palm plantations in Malaysia.
We decried the practice as we enjoyed its spoils. We said someone should do something about it, and we couldn’t understand why no one ever did. The problem was regulatory design and the unknowable complexity of the global supply chain. As we have learned through this era of inflation, no government or business can see through the supply chain.
Only now has the right combination of regulation and technology enabled the West to make inroads against this scourge. Only now has an entity evolved that can look at the entire supply chain without batting an eyelid.
The settlement is the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was passed in December and went into effect in June. The law requires U.S. importers of goods from China’s former Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to disprove the assumption that their goods were produced by forced labor. The European Union and the United Kingdom have similar laws in the works.
Prior to the act, the United States and others were sending listeners to locations in Xinjiang and elsewhere to try to determine what was going on inside. China, in a classic heavy-handed response, simply banned listeners.
“Third-party auditors have been threatened with physical harm while attempting to enter facilities to verify component sources,” Janet Labuda, compliance officer for Maersk Customs Services, said in a recent webinar.
Today, enforcement is quick and easy, with importers facing fines or having their goods seized unless they provide evidence to the contrary.
On an instinctual level, the idea of guilty until proven guilty seems wrong. But this is not a criminal case. The lives at stake are not those of the importers. And the burden of proof is perhaps a karmic reward for decades of benefiting from the unprovable.
Since establishing a forced labor unit in 2018, US Customs and Border Patrol has also stepped up the use of suspension orders. Under these orders, customs officials seize shipments suspected of containing the proceeds of modern slavery. It could be fish from the South China Sea, cocoa butter from Africa, or solar panel components from Xinjiang. In these cases, the worst offenders are identified, providing a checklist for government and corporate watchdogs. For businesses, this is a costly trap. Imports can sit in the docks for weeks at best, or have to be destroyed or removed from the United States if no exculpatory evidence is available.
“The bar for providing proof that goods were not made by forced labor is extremely high,” Labuda said.
Moreover, the law applies not only to the finished product, but to each component of this product and to each raw material it contains. It is not enough for your supplier to be clean. Their supplier and their supplier’s supplier must also comply.
How could an American department store with thousands of suppliers, each sending hundreds of garments of different styles containing mixtures of dozens of materials, be sure that it did not have a cotton yarn from Xinjiang? Source of the Silk Road, Xinjiang has been a textile hub for thousands of years. According to some estimates, 1 in 5 cotton garments is soiled by forced labour.
“The question is, how are we going to illuminate this multi-tiered supply chain with high fidelity?” said Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of Altana Technologies, a Brooklyn startup. “That’s where we come in.”
Altana claims to have built the most comprehensive map of the global supply chain ever produced, a constantly moving collage of billions of shipping records, public and non-public corporate and regulatory information, and industry statistics. supply chain software vendors.
“It’s not just a map, it’s a living map,” Smith said.
All the features of this card have been available for years, but only a computer could instantly process such volumes of information. And only a computer with artificial intelligence could make sense of it.
From this global trade DNA, Altana can perform a sort of 23andMe test of customer supply chains, eliminating any inconvenient links.
Here’s an example of how it works: A major clothing company used Altana’s map to confirm that a Sri Lankan supplier was sourcing cotton from a Xinjiang company previously censored for labor strength. The clothing company contacted its supplier.
The supplier denied any involvement with the Xinjiang company, saying it stopped sourcing there a year ago. But the clothing company knew better.
“We’re seeing shipments coming to you just a month ago,” Smith said, giving the floor to his client.
Like a reluctant teenager, the South Asian provider agreed to break up for real this time and sent documentary evidence.
Until the passage of the Uyghur law, seeking forced labor was “picking needles out of a haystack”, Smith said. Now it’s up to the haystack to prove it doesn’t have needles in it. And, if that doesn’t work, Altana has every strand of hay mapped.
There is of course a geopolitical element to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law. It’s part of what looks more and more like an ugly trade divorce between the United States and China. In another recent development, the US military said it was using artificial intelligence to trace all components and raw materials that go into defense equipment to exclude China from its supply chain.
For Uyghurs in the sweatshops of internment camps, the law and its support for AI may not make a big difference. But even a small difference in their situation would be a big step forward for humanity. Finally someone – or something – is doing something about it.
Rob Curran is a writer at Denton and a frequent contributor to the Dallas Morning News.
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