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Policy Exec Argues Against Forced-Labor Trade Tools

As the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) prepares to pin down its first dedicated trade strategy to combat forced labor, the nation’s largest business lobbying group warned that prioritizing enforcement of import restrictions could have “limited effectiveness” in tackling the root causes of modern slavery.

“The eradication of forced labor is a responsibility shared across multiple U.S. government agencies,” John Murphy, president for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a letter dated Aug. 3 about the “abhorrent” practice. “Relevant government agencies should prioritize diplomatic tools and collaboration with industry and partner governments to ensure the absence of forced labor in supply chains. Import restrictions, whether via a USTR-led trade agreement or CBP [Customs and Border Protection] enforcement actions, should be a last resort, not the primary tool.”

Responding to USTR’s public comment period, which closed last week, Murphy said that the Biden administration needs to “encourage, not disincentivize” the significant supply-chain mapping and due-diligence investments that many companies have made, as well as “transparency and collaboration” with the industry on tools and technologies that provide verifiable data.

Harmonizing compliance and reporting requirements with the Department of Homeland Security, CBP and others will also help allocate resources toward “addressing the problem of forced labor practices without adding unnecessarily to compliance burdens,” he said. By creating a consensus among partners and allies, he added, the administration can ensure the efficacy of policies while safeguarding fairness in competition and trade.

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Murphy argued that due-diligence and reporting requirements must be “flexible and practicable,” outlining objectives without “overly prescriptive obligations.” Trade agreements stemming from this strategy, he said, should incorporate “improved mechanisms” for collaborating with industry while aligning with existing regulatory and supply chain disclosure requirements. Any due diligence-related rules should likewise dovetail with international standards such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, to collectively articulate “internationally agreed upon responsibilities for business conduct.”

“We encourage USTR to work with other agencies and take a comprehensive approach to the issue, including through the use of diplomacy, aid and other incentives—not just trade barriers,” Murphy wrote. “Accordingly, we hope the administration utilizes trade-restrictive tools and Withhold Release Orders only when other tools prove ineffective.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose members include Amazon, Target and Walmart, also counseled patience, saying that efforts to eliminate forced labor take “significant” time and investment and “cannot be put in place overnight.” It also urged the White House to encourage other governments to beef up their own domestic measures protecting workers from “harmful” recruitment and employment practices.

“In many cases, companies are expected to regulate suppliers’ behaviors where governments have failed to do so effectively,” Murphy said. “This poses major challenges as companies cannot address state-sponsored forced labor on their own. However, they can effectively influence private entities. Therefore, we reiterate that combatting forced labor and ensuring that it has no place in global supply chains requires regular and meaningful collaboration between business and government.”

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai first revealed that a strategy was in the works at the convening of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Human Trafficking in January. The scheme, she said, was part of the Biden administration’s broader National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, a “priority effort” to end human trafficking and forced labor in global supply chains. This includes monitoring the nation’s forced labor obligations under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement and contributing expertise in the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

“Eradicating forced labor is not just a moral imperative, but an economic necessity. Doing so also helps protect workers from unfair competition and raises global labor standards,” Tai said. “In order to prevent this human exploitation, and protect the 25 million individuals—including women and children—forced to work against their will in harsh conditions, we need to come together as a global community and create collective action.”

Developing the strategy will include a “thorough” interagency review of existing trade policies and tools that fight forced labor, including forced child labor, to “determine areas that may need strengthening and gaps that need to be filled,” she said. USTR will use this assessment to “establish objectives, priorities, new tools, and key action items to advance our goals.” The process, Tai said, would be an inclusive one that includes input from stakeholders such as labor organizations, civil society, survivors and the private sector.

“At USTR, we are committed to using trade policy to support and empower workers in the United States and around the world,” she added. “I am committed to working with our trade partners to create a fair, rules-based international trading system where the use of forced labor in traded goods and services, including forced child labor, becomes a thing of the past.”