Eradicating the use of forced labor from the U.S. supply chain will require diligent law enforcement and rigorous due diligence by importers, but may ultimately rest on public awareness of the problem and action by investors.
“The vast majority of U.S. companies want to have compliance in this area. I think they are repulsed by the notion that there might be slave labor in their supply chains,” Robert Silvers, undersecretary of Homeland Security for strategy, policy, and plans.
However, compliance with U.S. laws prohibiting the importation of goods produced by forced labor can be difficult. The supply chain is increasingly complex as raw materials from various sources may be commingled, and some governments, notably the Chinese Communist Party, are uncooperative, Silvers said during a March 17 forum at Hudson Institute in Washington.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has published new compliance guidelines, a list of banned entities, and an online dashboard to help U.S. companies comply with the recently enacted Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act (UFLPA), which targets goods produced by the forced labor of the Uyghur people, a minority ethnic group in the Xinjiang region of China.
“The goal here is to eradicate forced labor. We’re never going to be able to do that if there are markets that are open to products made with forced labor,” Silvers said.
An even stronger weapon in the fight may be public opinion.
“Consumers have shown an interest over time in buying products that are consistent with their values,” Silvers said.
“I think most Americans don’t think about where the T-shirt they’re wearing comes from. That’s not because they’re bad people. It’s an awareness issue.”
Americans would be horrified to learn that their clothing, electronic devices, or produce were made by people living in “slave conditions,” Silvers said.
While DHS focuses on preventing goods tainted by forced labor from entering the country, he sees raising consumer awareness as a complementary effort.
“If consumers are aware, that incentivizes businesses to care—and to do more robust due diligence,” Silvers said.
Consumers have already had a significant impact on corporate behavior, according to Nury Turkel, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and a survivor of a forced labor camp in Xinjiang.
“The consumer has already spoken up,” Turkel said, referring to the boycott of the Winter Olympics by television viewers in 2022.
“American and Canadian people responded. As a result, NBC viewership dropped nearly 50 percent. That’s a huge response,” Turkel said.
“When the consumer speaks out, corporate boardrooms hear and adjust.”
Silvers said investors can alter a company’s behavior as well.
“There are investors out there that make a point of only investing in companies that have credible and strong due diligence programs around forced labor,” Silvers said.
“That’s not what we do [at DHS], but that’s another complementary, growing movement in the broader ecosystem, in which our societies as a whole can move toward a place where we do not tolerate the prevalence of forced labor in our supply chains.”