Labor Trafficking and the “Big Four 4”

By Meghan Hampsey

Palm oil, timber, cattle, and soy are the top commodities linked to environmental and social challenges, earning them the moniker the “big four.” Allie Goldstein highlighted these products’ effects on deforestation in her piece “Almost everything you buy, from cereal to mascara, is killing the rain forest.” However, these commodities are also connected to human rights violations—human trafficking is a known component of their global supply chains.

Palm oil is the most pervasive of the big four. It’s found in products from lipstick to detergent, ice cream, soap, and margarine—making it almost impossible to avoid. Verité reports on forced labor practices in palm oil supply chains including: excessive work hours, health hazards, child labor, and trafficking of migrant workers. Last year the United States imported 1.1 billion dollars’ worth of palm oil from Malaysia, which is the world’s largest exporter of highly saturated vegetable fat. Workers on the plantations may be as young as 11 years old and are mostly Indonesian migrants. They are trafficked through deceptive recruitment practices and often have their passports and pay withheld.

Timber, used for toilet paper, packaging, printer paper, and more, has evidence of labor trafficking in its supply chains in Peru. The International Organization for Migration estimates that there are 33,000 forced laborers in Peruvian logging. In this environment forced labor usually occurs in the form of debt bondage, especially of Amazonian indigenous communities. Middlemen scam the community by offering money in exchange for mahogany, and then return and inform them that the price of mahogany has gone down, leaving them in debt.

Cattle, a staple in most Americans’ diets, is linked to labor trafficking in at least twelve countries. The U.N. Refugee Agency has documented illegal practices including child labor and debt bondage on Brazilian cattle farms, where workers are lured by gatos, unscrupulous labor recruiters, through false promises of good pay. According to the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, Brazil does not comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. Government officials are being investigated and prosecuted for trabalho escravo, which under Brazilian law is defined as forced labor or labor performed during exhausting work days or in degrading working conditions. Although the United States is the largest producer of beef, it does import some cattle from Brazil.

However, in February of this year, President Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, closing an 85-year-old loophole in the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930, effectively banning all products made with forced labor from coming into the United States. The loophole previously allowed the United States to import goods made with forced labor if the demand for those goods exceeded the production domestically.

Now there’s a real opportunity for the ban on goods produced with forced labor to be enforced. As the largest consumer in the world, the United States has a responsibility to set the standard to make sure that supply chains are free of forced labor. The Tariff Act must be enforced to send the message that labor trafficking will not be tolerated, and to economically incentivize other countries to improve their efforts to combat trafficking.

Private businesses can help enforce this law by making a public commitment to combat forced labor by adopting best practices. Together, individuals, businesses, and governments can dismantle the business of trafficking. For more information on how to bankrupt slavery, read our blueprint.


Published on April 18, 2016


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