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, 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
Liberty Shared has quite a few approaches, but let’s look at the case example of Sime Darby Plantations, a Malaysian palm oil producer. 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 almost half the products in our supermarkets. It’s also in paints, animal feed, and even hand sanitizer.
Palm oil may be ubiquitous, but Liberty Shared’s research uncovered the fact that in the case of Sime Darby, the oil is produced under completely unacceptable, and often unlawful, conditions.
• The work is dangerous. Pesticides, snakes, scorpions, at times even rogue elephants, cause injury. For the workers, these threats are real and constant.
• Physical abuse may be used for coercion,. If a man “gets out of line,” he may be threatened and possibly beaten.
• Sexual assault is reported as a tool for intimidation. 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.” The threat of sexual assault is the subtext of this message.
∗ In the case of a worker who became ill, the estate manager may tamper with his or her medical records. For example when a man had a fever, which frequently happens due to the working conditions, and then he goes to the doctor to get a medical certificate . That medical certificate may be destroyed so the man must continue to work. If he doesn’t show up at work later because the fever is overwhelming, he may be penalized as much as 10% of his monthly salary, which is already barely at minimum wage.
What did Liberty Shared Do about Sime Darby?
“There’s a US law that says we can petition for the prohibition of importing of a company’s products that are produced by forced labor,” begins Jepson. “The law allows the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to prevent such products from entering the US.”
Liberty Shared made sure that this provision would apply to Sime Darby. On December 30th of last year, the CBP issued a Withhold Release Order, banning entry of Sime Darby Plantation’s products into the United States.
The cascading effects meant that at least in the case of one giant multinational company, change was inevitable.
On that same day, Liberty Shared submitted a complaint to the Malaysian Securities Commission, asking the Commission to review Sime Darby Plantations corporate disclosure on sustainability.
In the US, buyers such as Hershey have put a stop order on Sime Darby’s product. Their stockholders had the same attitude, that they didn’t want products made with slave labor.
Malaysian politicians have been frustrated and concerned. Having a product banned for sale in the US because of forced labor creates a very negative for the country. In addition, the politicians may be aware that the circumstances behind the trade ban are likely to be reflected in the widely-read US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Person’s report.
The investors and those financing Sime Darby also want change. They were being hit in the pocketbook in addition to reputational damage.
The end result of Liberty Shared’s effort is the beginning of what currently appears to be a substantial systemic change in at least one company’s position on forced labor. Blocking access to the US market means it’s likely that this change will occur across the industry and with all its stakeholders.
Jepson hopes to see more and more of this kind of approach. However, he knows that there isn’t one approach that will solve everything. He and his colleagues want to use every tool available for making the financial side of human trafficking less profitable.