In addition to being job creators and service providers, cities are massive consumers. From purchasing uniforms and food that stocks the City Hall cafeteria to hiring airport contractors and construction companies, municipalities spend millions of dollars each year on the goods, services, and labor they need to function. However, just like individual consumers, city governments risk procuring those goods and services from systems rife with labor exploitation, including human trafficking.
For example, cities often host events in hotels and conference centers, an industry where thousands of cases of workplace exploitation have been documented within the U.S. Likewise, fruits and vegetables purchased for city cafeterias, meetings, and events are too-often produced with forced labor, whether grown in the United States or imported. In fact, the U.S. currently imports an estimated $400 billion worth of goods that according to the U.S. Department of Labor are likely to be made with child or forced labor.
There are measures cities can take to minimize the risk of hiring contractors who provide goods or services tainted by forced labor. Cities are beginning to recognize that public procurement and other policies can give them the opportunity to “do the right thing” as well as leverage their tremendous purchasing power to influence and demand greater transparency from businesses.
Recognizing Governments’ Potential to Prevent Human Trafficking
In large supply chains, there is always the risk of inadvertently doing business with suppliers that are guilty of labor exploitation. Our federal government is certainly not immune and, in 2012, the Obama Administration sought to strengthen protections against trafficking in federal contracts by issuing Executive Order 13627 which was intended to reinforce the federal government’s zero-tolerance approach to human trafficking. Federal contractors are required to certify that they have implemented the specified compliance plan to prevent the occurrence of prohibited activities and to detect and take action against subcontractors and/or agents engaged in such activities.
State governments have also taken steps to address labor trafficking. For example, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which became effective in 2012, requires manufacturers and retailers with gross sales over $100 million globally and doing business in California to disclose on their websites the efforts they are taking to eradicate trafficking from their supply chains.
California’s Foreign Labor Recruitment Law (SB477) requires certain employers who hire migrant workers to register with the California Labor Commissioner and to comply with requirements designed to protect migrant workers, including provision of certain essential information and a prohibition on charging workers recruitment fees. The Labor Commissioner must post on its website the names of all registered foreign labor contractors, as well as a list of the labor contractors who were denied renewal or registration. Illinois and Maryland have drafted comparable legislation.
The Role of Cities
Over the past decade or so, cities around the nation have begun acknowledging and responding to the risk that they might exploit workers via relationships with contractors who may be engaged in forced labor or other exploitative business practices. Existing procurement policies represent a positive first step, although there is still much work to be done.
Along with existing local policies, the Responsible Sourcing Tool (RST), while created for corporations, can serve as a resource for cities interested in developing policies to reduce the risk of labor exploitation in goods and services they procure.
City Procurement Policy Examples
In November 2017, Human Rights First reported on Houston’s executive order, “Zero Tolerance for Human Trafficking in City Service Contracts and Purchasing.” EO 1-56 was put in place in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to ensure the tremendous increase in construction – and demand for construction workers – did not put workers at greater risk of exploitation. Specifically, the order requires contractors to take steps to prevent forced labor in their supply chains, so the city can ascertain that their procurement process is free from goods and services made under exploitative conditions.
Numerous cities, including Seattle, Madison, Portland, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have some form of “sweat-free” purchasing and procurement policies. In 2015, for example, Madison, Wisconsin passed an ordinance aimed at ensuring that city-purchased apparel costing $5,000 or more—including police, fire and metro driver uniforms—is not made with sweatshop labor. Companies wishing to obtain those contracts must work with their suppliers to disclose the factories used as well as information about workers’ employment conditions such as pay rates, benefits, standard work hours, overtime eligibility, and more.
In 2015, Chicago also passed a sweatshop-free ordinance mandating that city and county officials only buy employee garments from companies willing to sign an affidavit promising that neither they nor their subordinates use sweatshop labor. Since taking on the role of Pathways to Freedom senior fellow in March, Robin Ficke has been working with numerous city departments including Legal, Operations, Procurement as well as local human trafficking organizations to develop the procurement ordinance, which was recently introduced, by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Matt O’Shea, to the City Council. If approved, this ordinance will require city contractors to affirm that neither they nor their suppliers and subcontractors engage in human trafficking or forced labor.
Examining existing city and state policies can be a useful starting point for local governments interested in reducing the risk of procuring goods and services from systems that include labor exploitation. However, it is important to recognize the limitations of procurement policies that cover a small range of goods or services. And if a city does not invest in monitoring and enforcement, no procurement policy is going to achieve its desired outcome.
Cities have a responsibility to protect all workers, including those who produce their goods and deliver their services.