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March 24, 2017

How the French are Tackling Modern Slavery

By Cassidy Slater

In February, the French Parliament adopted a new law establishing a duty of vigilance for businesses, requiring them to monitor their company and supply chains for human rights and environmental protection violations. It also requires them to publish an annual risk report assessing the real impact of these policies.

In their report, businesses are required to identify the risks that accompany their activities as well as their subsidiaries and subcontractors. After identifying risks, they must describe the ways they are working to mitigate the risk of human rights violations and institute alert systems to track potential risks. Companies must fulfill their due diligence and take steps to eliminate forced labor in supply chains and evaluate the effectiveness of the monitoring policies put in place under the law.

This bill closely resembles the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, although the French law applies to fewer companies. The French law does not use profits as a criterion for reporting, but instead focuses on the size of the company. Only about 150 businesses will be affected by the new rules. Another difference is that the French law lays out specific reporting requirements—although they are not perfect.

Companies that fail to monitor themselves or publish reports can be reported by victims or concerned parties. Unfortunately, this practice can bring an unfair burden of proof for victims who already face a severe imbalance of power. Even if an incident occurs, if a company can verify that it has implemented a vigilance plan, it can be found not liable for any damages. This leaves many advocates questioning the power of this law to create change, since companies don’t have to show proof of improvement, but instead only proof of effort. Unlike laws in the United Kingdom or the United States, French companies that fail to comply with the law can face possible financial penalties totaling as much as 10 million euros.

Despite its limitations, the French law addresses what many trafficking advocates argue is a key to combating trafficking: enlisting the private sector ensure that products imported are not made at the expense of protecting human rights. Human trafficking is an incredibly profitable criminal enterprise and traffickers utilize modern day slavery to exploit global markets and undermine the stability of free markets. Of the estimated 20.9 million enslaved people around the world, 68 percent of them are exploited for labor.

The French law addresses the global demand for cheap goods. Companies with workers all over the world are the best positioned to respond to this demand. Prioritizing human rights over exorbitant profits gives power to governments and businesses, not traffickers. The law effectively pressures companies to prioritize workers. This approach may be the fastest way to reach some of the millions trapped in modern slavery.

By establishing a common set of standards and requiring the vigilance report, France is taking responsibility for its slavery footprint and working with the business community to improve its impact on the world. We are seeing a global shift in the fight against forced labor as developed countries formalize businesses’ obligation to uphold human rights.

In the United States, an amendment to the Tariff Act banned goods made with forced labor from entering the country. This practice could be widely successful if adopted internationally and strictly enforced. Banning these tainted goods could economically devastate companies that continue to profit from trafficked labor, forcing them to amend their ways. International coordination coupled with increased accountability for businesses and their suppliers would be an effective method of fighting slavery in the global marketplace.

The international community should hold companies and their governments accountable. Keeping slavery out of supply chains helps protect vulnerable individuals and the integrity of workers, businesses, and international markets. By demonstrating support for other initiatives aiming to improve corporate accountability and by enforcing existing policies at home banning the import of goods made with forced labor, the United States can send a clear message that we will not turn a blind eye to the suffering of exploited workers.