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

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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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.