City of Houston Acts to Stop Goods Produced with Forced Labor
Earlier this month, Houston’s Mayor signed an executive order to implement a zero tolerance policy for human trafficking in city service contracts and purchasing. The order calls on contractors to ensure they have protections in place to prevent forced labor in their supply chains, ensuring that the city’s procurement process does not purchase services or goods made under exploitative conditions.
Human Rights First estimates that $142 billion worth of goods undermined by substandard labor practices continue to enter the U.S. market each year. These goods make their way onto the shelves of local markets and into the homes of Americans, who inadvertently support the market for slavery.
Orders like Houston’s are useful tool in the fight against trafficking, the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, one that claims 24.9 million victims worldwide and earns perpetrators
$150 billion annually in illicit profits. Such orders recognize the ever-increasing complexity of our global economy, where companies have supply chains with multiple levels of subcontractors all over the world.
This Houston order requires contractors that work with the city of Houston to monitor not only their own supply chains, but to ensure that their subcontractors are also compliant with labor laws. As an additional safeguard, the city prioritizes raising awareness of human trafficking and creates programs to disseminate information about certified fair-trade products that can be purchased by the city. The executive order provides waivers that excuse contractors from compliance in a few instances—when, for example, a contractor is the sole provider of needed services or when the contract is needed for emergency response.
Houston’s order is a measure meant to prevent abuses like those of the Signal Corporation, which exploited workers through government procurement. Following Hurricane Katrina, Signal lured hundreds of Indian workers to the United States with the promise of legal permanent residency and well-paying jobs. Instead, workers were charged high fees to live in guarded labor camps under horrific conditions and forced to work repairing damage along the U.S. coast line. In the end, Signal Corporation was ordered to pay a settlement of $14 million to five workers and another $20 million settlement for labor trafficking.
The U.S. government has long had a zero-tolerance policy regarding government employees and contractors engaging in any form of human trafficking. This policy became more effective when President Obama signed an executive order in 2012 requiring all U.S. government contractors to have specific compliance plans to prevent trafficking. These new requirements prohibit U.S. government contractors from engaging in severe forms of trafficking in persons, procuring commercial sex acts during the period of the contract, using forced labor in performance of the contract, withholding or destroying an employee’s identity or immigration documents, using misleading or fraudulent practices during the recruitment of employees, charging employees recruitment fees, failing to provide return transportation upon completion of the contract, or arranging housing that fails to meet the host country housing and safety standards.
State and local governments can bolster efforts by the federal government by adopting their own zero-tolerance policies. This executive order makes Houston a leader in city zero-tolerance policies. Other cities and states should follow its lead and go a step further by requiring contractors to implement compliance plans similar to what is required of them at the federal level. Cities and states should hold all contractors responsible for their supply chains at all levels, enlisting compliant contractors that can provide needed goods and services.
Companies with policies that prevent forced labor in their supply chains and prioritize social responsibility will help the U.S. government bankrupt the business of human trafficking.