While the U.S. generally treats forced labor as a foreign issue, a new study highlights a need for the country with a fierce commitment to tackling trafficking to spend more time focusing inward. Published in Nature Food, the study finds that the risk of forced labor is prevalent throughout the American food system.
Approximately 62% of forced labor commodities (excluding seafood) found in the U.S. are produced domestically. Forced labor is most prevalent in handpicked goods, such as apples and avocados, as well as the highly processed, such as meats and sweeteners.
Charity begins at home
The authors emphasize that the findings mean that U.S. authorities should rethink their methodologies when it comes to fighting forced labor goods available in country. Relying on import bans and trade sanctions to mitigate the risk of forced labor is clearly a huge oversight and gives a false sense of security to consumers.
They point out that forced labor risk indicators exist in the U.S. as well as elsewhere.
“News reports have highlighted documented incidents of forced labor in lower-income countries, particularly in the chocolate and coffee industries, but poverty, language barriers, and precarious immigration statuses can create populations that are just as vulnerable to exploitation in the U.S. as those overseas.”
What does trafficking look like?
Saul Elbein for the Hill reports,
“One NGO noted law enforcement disproportionately dismissed requests for help from survivors who were Black, Indigenous, or people of color, or arrested them when they came forward,” the agency authors noted.
The assumption that coercive labor is a foreign problem blinds consumers — and policymakers — to the “risk that comes from our domestic food production as well,” Decker Sparks said.
“And that’s important because some of the more effective tools we use to try to eliminate or mitigate the risk of forced labor in the U.S. are trade bans or trade sanctions,” she added.
These measures, in other words, do little to help those suffering from forced labor in the U.S.
The plight of seasonal migrant workers
The study finds that risks are particularly serious for temporary agricultural workers who are tied to their employers who control their living situations and may even hold their passports. Without putting stricter measures in place to protect migrant workers, the U.S. has been steadily increasing the temporary work visa quotas increasing the number of people who are at risk of forced labor domestically.
Last year, the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, had the chance to help lower the risk of forced labor for temporary migrant workers but rejected it even though, as this study points out, they are most at risk.
Hopefully, as the authors intend, authorities rethink their approach to tackling forced labor.
“We need to look at strategies for how we respond, but also how we prevent the problem. And that’s going to require something much more transformative and directly driven by workers.”