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April 26, 2017

A Woman’s Death in Italy Spotlights Modern Slavery

Earlier this month the New York Times ran a story on Paola Clemente, a 49-year-old woman who died working in the grape fields of southern Italy. The investigation into her death uncovered a complex network of human trafficking and forced labor exploitation.

While slavery has been illegal in every country around the globe for more than thirty years, Mrs. Clemente’s death shows that modern day slavery is still prevalent—even in countries like Italy. The International Labor Organization estimates that there remains 20.9 million people living as slaves across the globe today. Labor exploitation accounts for 68 percent of that population, with the agriculture, forestry & fishing industries creating nine billion dollars in illicit profits each year.

Many countries have taken steps to fight modern slavery, but without robust enforcement, greater care of and involvement for survivors, and strict oversight of supply chains, slavery will remain an extremely lucrative crime.

Mrs. Clemente’s death stains all our hands, reaching beyond the beautiful vineyards in southern Italy. In our global economy, modern slavery poses a problem that impacts every consumer, regardless of geographic location, economic status, or shopping habits. Convoluted supply chains, subcontractors, and the constant movement of goods for trade make it difficult to track products or gain information about their production. Lack of oversight and due diligence by even a few companies means that forced labor can enter the supply chain at any point during production, and usually gets overlooked unless associated with direct producers.

Modern slavery is not new to southern Italy’s agricultural industry. Thousands of poor Italians, migrant workers, and asylum seekers pick fruit and become vulnerable to trafficking. In Italy, where the effects of the economic downturn earlier in the decade are still being felt, cash-strapped farmers work with labor recruiters who serve as middlemen to take advantage of the cheap labor. These workers are paid very little and middlemen take what's left.

To combat this problem Italy passed legislation that increases jail sentences for exploiting workers and gives the government the power to seize goods when companies fail to comply with employment laws. But a lack of enforcement has led to minor change. Sadly, these policies are failing for the same reason in many countries, including the United States.

In February 2016, Congress closed the consumptive demand loophole by amending the Tariff Act of 1930. Without the loophole, goods made with forced labor are banned from being imported into the United States. It falls to Customs and Border Protection to initiate investigations of imports that are suspected of being produced with forced labor, and to withhold these goods from entry if so.

According to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) List of Goods Made with Child Labor or Forced Labor 2016 report, there are a total of 139 goods produced by child or forced labor in violation of international standards in as many as 75 countries around the world. Despite the strict language in the Tariff Act, the United States imports an estimated $111 billion worth of goods found on the DOL list.

The United States should not provide a market for slavery. However, it is clear that we are importing a tremendous number of goods that should, at the very least, be investigated for forced labor. To truly prevent Americans from supporting slavery, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) needs to prioritize investigating these shipments. The DOL list serves as an excellent resource that CBP should use as a guide to narrow the scope of investigations, looking specifically at shipments of goods from countries or industries on the list.

If the U.S. government robustly enforced the ban on imports produced with slave labor, it would send a strong message to slavery-supporting companies and countries that they will no longer benefit from the U.S. market. Utilizing the purchasing power of the United States would serve as a strong incentive to drive change and improve labor practices globally.

CBP is the only agency permitted to conduct these administrative investigations, making their commitment to enforce the ban key in ending the market for slavery in the United States. If we are going to dismantle the business of modern slavery, we must press our government to enforce the policies that lawmakers and consumers have worked to create. We must educate ourselves and strive to shut down the market for slavery, so that no other woman, man, or child should meet the fate that Mrs. Clemente did in Italy.