Going After Trafficking’s Achilles Heel

– By Mitzi Perdue

“You have to accept the fact this is all about the money.”

The speaker, Duncan Jepson, is the founder of Liberty Shared, an anti-trafficking organization.  He and his colleagues are attacking the Achilles’ heel of trafficking, and that is, the obscene profitability that results when labor costs are close to free.

So, how can they make trafficking less profitable? How do they go after the finances of the traffickers?

Palm Oil, a Case Example

They have quite a few approaches, but let’s look at the case example of the Malaysian palm oil industry.  The stakes in Malaysian palm oil are high.  The United States imported close to half a billion dollars of Malaysian palm oil last year.

Palm oil is an ingredient in many of the products in our supermarkets.  It’s in cosmetics, paints, candy, confectionary, animal feed, and even hand sanitizer.

Palm oil may be ubiquitous, but for years Non Governmental Organizations, like Liberty Shared, have been hearing allegations from workers on various palm plantations in Malaysia.  Jepseon and his colleagues heard complaints that workers were enduring conditions, that satisfied many, if not all, of the ILO’s indicators of forced labor.

•       Physical abuse including beatings if a worker “got out of line.”
•       Sexual assault used as a tool for intimidation.  As an example of how this works, if a woman is not a compliant worker, her boss may tell her something along the lines of, “Today I’m sending you to a remote part of the jungle.” And then he’ll add ominously, “You’ll be on your own. There won’t be anyone else nearby..” The threat of sexual assault is the subtext of this message.
•       Tampering with medical records.  In the case of a worker who became ill, there’s a fear  that the estate manager may “lose” his or her medical records.  For example,  a man who saw the doctor for a severe fever, may find that the record of his medically excused absence had disappeared. If he doesn’t show up at work later because the fever is overwhelming, he may be penalized.
•       Dangerous work, including exposure to pesticides, snakes, scorpions, and even rogue elephants.  For the workers, these threats are real and constant.

Something Has Changed in the Palm Oil Industry

The situation is disheartening, but just recently, the US Government has provided an encouraging remedy. According to Jepson, people can petition the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to ban imports of products produced using forced labor.

If the CBP finds the information compelling, they will then conduct their own, separate investigation. The CBP may spends months, or often a year or more, before reaching a conclusion to ban a product.

When they do issue an import ban, the results have impact. Last year, the CBP issued  importation bans against two palm oil companies, FGV Holdings Berhad and Sime Darby Plantations Berhad.

In response each company stated that their total sales into the US are small, barely $10 million U.S. dollars. However, these are the two largest producers in Malaysia, and Malaysian palm oil imports last year were, as mentioned earlier, in the half a billion-dollar range.

Officials have reason to wonder if the $10 million in sales in the US that the two companies admitted to is an accurate figure.  Getting a correct accounting is crucial.

However, even before the accounting is completed, the mere fact of the import ban has made at least some changes inevitable for the two giant multinational companies. As an example of change, US buyers such as Hershey, have put a stop order on palm oil products from this area of the world.

Malaysian politicians are concerned.  Having a product banned for sale in the US because of forced labor is a big negative for the country’s reputation.

Investors in the palm oil industry and those financing it are also concerned. They or their clients may be hit in the pocketbook in addition to a possible reputational damage.

The end result of Liberty Shared’s and others’ efforts is likely to be substantial systemic change in at least the two largest Malaysian companies’ position on forced labor. Jepson hopes to see more of this approach in relation to other industries.

Jepson knows that one approach will not solve everything. He and his colleagues want to use a range of tools available to making the financial side of human trafficking and forced labor less profitable. However, import bans when there’s slave labor involved, can be a highly effective approach to bringing about positive change.

About The Author

Mitzi Perdue is a businesswoman, author, and Founder of Win This Fight, Stop Human Trafficking Now. She holds a B.A. degree with honors from Harvard University and a Master's from George Washington University. She's a past president of the 40,000 member American Agri-Women, and she was a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi. She was also a Commissioner for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Her Scripps Howard column, The Environment and You, was for years the most widely syndicated environmental column in the U.S.

She is the founder and president of “Win This Fight! Stop Human Trafficking Now,” an organization that raises funds and awareness for other anti-trafficking initiatives.