Closing a Loophole in History

The United States ended slavery after the Civil War, but it did not cease to benefit from it — and legally, too. Until February 25, 2016, that is, when a loophole in an 85-year-old tariff law was closed and President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that should more effectively keep the products of forced labor out of the U.S.

Slavery and the products of slavery were banned, but there was an exception big enough to drive a chain gang through. “Consumptive demand” — a lack of supply to meet domestic demand — allowed imports, no matter how they were produced. Thanks to that loophole, the Tariff Act of 1930, which authorized Customs and Border Protection officials to stop shipments where forced labor was suspected, was implemented only 39 times. The last time was in 2000.

The amended law will hopefully have a major impact on slavery in countries that trade with the United States. Fish caught by slaves in Southeast Asia, gold mined by children in Africa, and garments sewn by abused workers in Bangladesh will, among other imports, be kept out by a tighter legal net. The law takes effect in less than two weeks.

However, much we welcome news of the amendment, no civilized person can be anything but saddened by this reminder of the horrendous conditions of servitude that prevail in every country in the world. An estimated 27 million people in 165 countries are made to work against their will. It is said that there are more people suffering in various conditions of enforced labor today than at any previous time in history.

If the figure sounds incredible, perhaps that is because when Americans think of slavery we think of the plantations of the antebellum South. By contrast, modern slavery takes many different forms — in factories, fisheries, mines, and yes, coffee, cotton, tea and tobacco plantations. Unlike the Old South, it affects all races.

We said every country — not only in the underdeveloped world and among desperate, unprotected migrants, but even in the U.S. For example, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation recently conducted an investigation that resulted in the arrests of over 60 people charged with involvement in 28 cases of human trafficking.

While slavery is illegal everywhere, the law seems to have no restraining effect on the ruthless exploiters of vulnerable human beings, particularly women and children.

Yet, because of the immense power of the U.S. economy, there is reason to be hopeful that a deliberate and sustained exercise of that power will significantly reduce this evil.

Indeed, the closing of the import loophole represents only a part of a broader effort to deal with the problem.

The “End Modern Slavery Initiative Act,” introduced by Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, calls on the federal government, the private sector and foreign governments to cooperate in seeking the elimination of slavery. The extent of the evil is such that it will require a large-scale, determined effort to combat it. Accordingly, the initiative will try to raise $1.5 billion, more than 80 percent of which will come through matching funds from the private sector and foreign governments.

In addition, the Girls Count Act, sponsored by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot, targets the disappearance-enslavement of millions of children, especially girls, who are born without adequate birth records. This lack of documentation makes them easy prey for human traffickers, who make them disappear into their criminal networks. The Act requires the State Department and USAID to work with other countries, international agencies and faith-based organizations to help develop birth certificates and national registries for children in developing nations.

Despite its huge extent and profitability, the shame that attaches to the practice of enslavement can make the offenders surprisingly sensitive to exposure. An exposé by the AP last year found Thai companies shipping to the U.S. seafood that was caught and processed by enslaved workers. As a result of the reports, more than 2,000 trapped fishermen were rescued, more than a dozen alleged traffickers arrested, and millions of dollars’ worth of seafood and vessels seized.

There is a certain harsh irony in the fact that while concern about the environmental impact of foods and other products has focused attention on their origins, there has been no comparable concern about the exploitation of humanity in producing the products we consume. We are familiar with labels that proclaim their environmental friendliness; but where is the label that assures the buyer of their “human friendliness,” namely, that the product was not made by slaves?

People are generally uninformed about the inhumane conditions under which their food was produced, who dug the gold for their ring out of the earth, or whether their shirt and pants were sewn by the hands of child laborers.

Fortunately, light is being shed on the problem, and serious efforts are being undertaken to rid the world of this terrible scourge.