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US and Japan Tag Team to Fight Forced Labor

The United States and Japan joined forces on Friday to launch a task force addressing the common trade agenda of fighting worker exploitation in international supply chains.

Part of the larger U.S.-Japan Partnership on Trade, the task force represents an “opportunity” for the two countries to champion human rights and internationally recognized labor standards, including blocking the use of forced labor in supply chains through trade policy, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said.

While concern over China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities wasn’t mentioned, its specter was undeniable amid the first anniversary of the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act’s (UFLPA) entry into law.

Enforcing the UFLPA’s rebuttable presumption that any products hailing from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are made with forced labor—and therefore prohibited on American shores—remains an ongoing challenge, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wrote in a blog post last week.

“It has become normal operating procedure [for Chinese producers] to obfuscate the origin of goods from the XUAR,” making work for CBP employees more challenging, said international trade analyst Diana Sassmann.

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Still, forced labor permeates every part of the world, making it a larger issue beyond China, CBP noted.

Through the task force, the United States and Japan will exchange information on relevant laws, policies and guidelines; promote best practices for human and labor rights due diligence; and facilitate dialogue and cooperation with businesses and workers’ groups.

“From their leadership in the development of the Group of 7 trade ministers’ statement on forced labor to their first-ever release of human rights due diligence guidelines for responsible supply chains to their commitment to carry out shared principles to combat forced labor with the United States and the European Union, the government of Japan has consistently been a trusted partner in the fight to promote workers’ rights and drive the race to the top in trade,” said U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

The U.S. section of the task force includes the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Department of State, Department of Commerce, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Japan’s section features the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The launch of this task force is another example of how trade can be a force for good throughout the world,” Tai said. “Developing new tools that bring together the combined expertise of agencies across the governments of the United States and Japan will help contribute to tackling worker exploitation in global supply chains.”

More collaboration is needed to take on this weighty issue, agreed Australia’s National Retail Association (NRA) in a review of the country’s 2018 Modern Slavery Act on Monday.

Based on learnings gleaned from the trade group’s modern slavery committee, the NRA recommends more “formalized opportunities” for businesses to collaborate on grievance mechanisms, audits and remediation that would maximize human-rights outcomes with duplication. The organization urged the Australian government to consider possible amendments to the competition law to offer “better clarity and facilitation” in this area, as well as appoint an anti-slavery commissioner to serve as a point of contact for reporting entities and the public.

“Retailers have advised they have experienced a number of challenges that could have been minimized with better industry-specific guidance, which we believe a commissioner could provide,” the NRA said. “We don’t recommend that this role be empowered as an enforcement agency—but rather educational and investigative agency, to encourage optimal human rights outcomes.”

The group also said that more entities should be incentivized to use established supplier management platforms to identify, manage and remediate supply chain risks, especially those beyond the first tier. It supports any move by lawmakers to provide a tax offset for the cost of engaging such platforms, such as Amfori and Sedex, so that they are cost-neutral for companies to use.

Though fulfilling obligations under the Modern Slavery Act can be expensive—for businesses with a turnover of 100 million Australian dollars ($69 million) or more, total annual costs can run between 50,000 Australian dollars and 100,000 Australian dollars ($34,535 and $69,070), the NRA estimated—the organization said that ultimately “managing modern slavery risk should eventually become a cost of doing business in Australia.”