WASHINGTON — The State Department on Thursday shined the spotlight on five countries — Vietnam, Guatemala, Russia, Chile and Jordan — that it says use forced labor in garment manufacturing, while it singled out Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and others for using forced labor in cotton production.
The countries were identified in the department’s “2016 Trafficking in Persons Report,” which places countries on different tiers based on a government’s actions to combat human trafficking, which the State Department equates to “modern-day slavery.” Being downgraded to Tier 3 can trigger economic and military sanctions against a country.
Forced labor in garment factories in Jordan, which has a free-trade agreement with the U.S., was detailed extensively as was the case in last year’s report.
“Men and women from throughout Asia migrate to work in factories in Jordan’s garment industry, where some workers experience withholding of passports, unsafe living conditions, verbal abuse and restricted movement; in addition, workers in 47 percent of the factories in this industry pay unauthorized fees to recruitment agents in their country of origin, making them vulnerable to debt bondage,” the report said.
The State Department said the Jordanian government continued to take proactive steps to identify trafficking victims and made progress in offering protection to them.
According to the report, the government offered protection services to 100 forced labor victims in a garment factory in January, but noted the victims reportedly chose to continue working in the factory instead of receiving assistance.
An NGO reported in February that “the factory administration was not providing the victims adequate food and was pressuring them to drop the charges against their perpetrators,” according to the report.
The U.S. also has a free-trade deal with Chile and Guatemala is a partner in the Central America Free Trade Agreement, while Vietnam is a partner country in the pending 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
In the case of Vietnam, the second-largest supplier of apparel to the U.S., the report said, “Some children are subjected to forced and bonded labor in informal garment and brick factories or urban family homes and privately run rural gold mines.”
In Russia, which is listed as a Tier 3 country, the report said “foreign laborers work primarily in construction, housing and utilities, and as public transport drivers, seasonal agricultural workers, tailors and garment workers in underground garment factories, and vendors at marketplaces and shops. Many of these migrant workers experience exploitative labor conditions characteristic of trafficking cases, such as withholding of identity documents, nonpayment for services rendered.
Myanmar and Sri Lanka were identified as sources of migrant labor to other countries where workers often ended up in forced labor in garment production.
“Our members find the report extremely helpful in terms of risk mapping where they should be looking for concerns,” said Nate Herman, vice president of international trade at the American Apparel & Footwear Association.
But Herman did note that there is a concern about how the State Department’s report will shape a report that the Department of Labor compiles, known as the “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor.”
“The concern is how this will play out in other reports,” Herman said. “The [DOL] report is very broad and can brand whole industries as using child or forced labor.
“Obviously our industry is very against forced labor and has been implementing policies throughout their supply chains to try prevent the use of forced labor and worked to eradicate the problem,” Herman said.
On Vietnam, a large and growing apparel supplier to the U.S., Herman said the report was explicit in noting that forced labor was not found in the formal garment sector, but rather in the informal garment sector.
“There is a problem, but the scope is limited to just that situation,” Herman said. “So with this, [companies] will be looking more deeply — obviously not in factories they are working with in Vietnam — but they want to make sure nothing is being subbed out to home workers or they want to make sure they are auditing home workers if there is a concern.”
There have been pervasive problems in Jordan’s garment industry for several years, but Herman said the industry has worked with the International Labour Organization’s “Better Work” program to implement policies and changes to address the issue.
“Every factory in Jordan under Jordanian law is required to be part of the Better Works program. It is the best way to target the industry writ large in the country. There has been a long-standing issue there because of the prevalence of migrant workers from other countries,” Herman said. “As the report noted, there could have been specific instances where there could still be problems, but feel we have made a lot of progress on the issue in Jordan.”
The report also listed instances of forced labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan, Benin, Cameroon, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Togo and Turkmenistan.
The Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights organizations, NGOs, trade unions and businesses associations, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commending the agency’s actions to downgrade the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to Tier 3.
“We believe that as a next step, the United States should immediately communicate to the authorities in Tashkent and Ashgabat that if they wish to avoid sanctions available under the [statute] for Tier 3 countries, they need to take concrete steps to address the problem of state-organized forced labor prior to the start of this fall’s cotton harvest,” the group said. “Such efforts could include: enforcing laws prohibiting forced labor, including by instructing officials at all levels of government to refrain from using coercion to mobilize citizens to work in the cotton fields and prosecuting all officials who do; ending mandatory quotas and penalties against farmers who do not fulfill them, and raising and eventually freeing cotton procurement prices….”
The letter was signed by the several companies, industry groups and NGOs including the AAFA, Inditex and the AFL-CIO.
The goal of the State Department report is not to identify sectors where forced labor is found specifically, but to more broadly prod governments to combat and reduce human trafficking. It provides an assessment of governments’ efforts to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, according to U.S. law. Still, in the country narratives, the trafficking report identified industries where forced labor is found, often as a result of human trafficking.
“The purpose of this report is to enlighten, energize and empower,” Kerry said. “That’s why it incorporates the insights of NGOs, advocates and survivors with firsthand experience of this horrific crime. By issuing it, we want to bring to the public’s attention the full nature and scope of the $150 billion illicit human trafficking industry.”
Kerry said the agency is focused on providing a “strong incentive” for governments to do all that they can to prevent and prosecute trafficking, and identify and assist victims.