Could bringing manufacturing home also help eradicate modern day slavery?

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The coronavirus has been a wake-up call for the U.S. concerning manufacturing and production. For many years, we’ve imported hundreds of thousands of the basic items we need and use every day. Everything from clothes to kitchen gadgets to electronics to pet food comes marked “Made in China,” or Thailand, Malaysia, India or Bangladesh. Our key communications systems — cell phones, computers, televisions and other electronics — are most likely produced in Asia. 

Now in this pandemic, we find that our pharmaceuticals, medicines and medical equipment are either produced in China, or have some ingredient or part that is sourced from China before being produced in India, Malaysia, Thailand or another country and then imported to the U.S.   In fact, supply chains are so complicated that it may take objects sourced from or produced in several different countries to complete one car, one pharmaceutical, one computer.

At the same time, over the past decade, anti-trafficking experts have uncovered slavery in supply chains in many of the products sourced or produced using cheap labor. An investigation of workers at factories in India and Bangladesh that make clothes for big-name clothing companies in the West found that workers live in “near-slavery conditions,” confined to hostels and not allowed to leave. “Did a slave make your sneakers? Probably” read a headline in a recent article about popular shoes produced using a supply chain that could not track how the parts of its shoe were produced. “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China” reads the back of your iPhone.  

Early in the 21st century, anti-trafficking experts began uncovering forced labor and child labor in the production of chocolate, garments, carpets and diamond mining. Although it did not get much press, not too long ago, investigative journalists uncovered factory-worker suicides, extreme working conditions, exposure to deadly chemicals and child-labor abuses in the production of iPhones in China.

In 2005, Congress required the Department of Labor to publish a list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor. Now each year, the Labor Department publishes a report describing in detail how the complicated globalization of our manufacturing processes has also produced a system in which our food, clothing and thousands of other products are made with slave labor.  The 2018 report names 76 countries in which child labor or forced labor is used to produce furniture, carpets, chocolate, textiles, coffee, seafood, minerals, electronics and many other products. The U.S. is not on this list.

The response to this terrible discovery has been the growth of an anti-trafficking movement that focuses on monitoring global supply chains to uncover slavery in supply chains. While some countries have passed laws to address the problem, supply chains are so complicated and difficult to audit that the main progress has been to encourage countries and companies to self-police and to be “transparent” in revealing use of forced labor in product supply chains.  

Some nongovernmental organizations have begun creating specialized tools for different industry sectors to monitor their supply chains to address the problem. NGOs also rely on the global public to take note when slavery is uncovered and shame companies into changing their policies through petitions, boycotts and PR campaigns.  

But with companies relying on contracts, subcontracts and sub-subcontracts in countries with little criminal justice structure or undemocratic political structures, it is difficult to make progress. Complicated company supply chains cannot be readily traced to identify slave labor.  When it is uncovered, some companies find their “bad actor” subcontractors simply close down and open up under another name. Other countries, such as China, have become so powerful that they control complete supply chains. They have had so many years to deepen our dependency on their inexpensive products that they cannot be easily shamed or “outed” into fixing slave labor practices that are built into their systems.

As part of his call to “Make America Great Again,” President Trump campaigned on bringing manufacturing back to America. At the time, many business experts claimed it could not be done — that market forces meant that globalization was a fact of life we would simply have to accept.  But the current pandemic-related shortages in medicines, medical supplies and medical equipment have been a wake-up call for U.S. citizens. Americans have been confronted with the reality that the U.S. is dependent upon foreign countries who are political and/or economic competitors for vital goods and services and other critical supplies.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review argues that it will be difficult if not impossible to bring manufacturing back to the United States because of how modern supply networks are structured.  It argues that the  United States and other advanced industrial economies “have evolved a highly efficient and productive product manufacturing-and-delivery system that provides them with a cornucopia of products at very low costs.” It notes that “the days are long gone when a single vertically-integrated manufacturer like Ford or General Motors could design and manufacture all or most of the subassemblies and components it needs to make a finished product. Technology is just too complicated, and it is impossible to possess all the skills that are necessary in just one place. Consequently, manufacturers have turned to specialists and subcontractors who narrowly focus on just one area — and even those specialists have to rely on many others.”  

The article also notes that leaders of product companies demand “greater productivity,” which is another way of saying, “I want it cheaper,” that procurement managers are measured on how much productivity they can deliver every year, and their bonuses are tied to it, and that U.S. customers will not pay for products that cost more to ensure control over our supply chains.

That was then — only a few years ago — when globalization was impossible to criticize. The pandemic is uncovering some hidden costs that we cannot afford — the cost of being dependent upon a foreign nation for critical supplies; the cost of having jobs and labor take place halfway around the world while our own citizens cannot find work, the cost of loss of control over quality inspection processes for the goods, and fair labor standards and practices in the supply chain.  Japan, which has found itself in a similar position of dependency upon China for its goods, has already designed a country-wide package for bringing some of its manufacturing home. It has earmarked $2.2 billion of a stimulus package to help companies make this shift.

President Trump’s vision for reinvigorating some of our manufacturing industries is one that deserves and is getting a second look. It’s side benefits may be tremendous and far-reaching: In the U.S., we have an infrastructure to prevent forced labor, indentured servitude and child labor, including labor laws that set standards for minimum wage, overtime, child labor, health and safety conditions in the workplace. If President Trump can bring even some of our manufacturing home it will create jobs for Americans, reduce our dependence on goods from countries that we cannot monitor or control, and help to eradicate human trafficking and modern-day slavery. 

Laura Lederer served as the senior adviser on trafficking in persons at the Department of State from 2001-2008. She currently is a subject matter expert on human trafficking for U.S. government agencies. Follow her on Twitter @lauralederer.

Tags child labor Donald Trump Human rights abuses Human trafficking Slavery in the 21st century Supply chain

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