“For 85 years, this egregious lacuna in protection has created a procedural backdoor into the American marketplace for goods made by forced or bonded laborers, including children…”
With little public fanfare, on Thursday February 11, 2016, the U.S. Senate voted on a critical piece of human rights legislation. The bill closed a loophole allowing the import of products made by forced or child labor when U.S. demand exceeded its domestic supply. For 85 years, this egregious lacuna in protection has created a procedural backdoor into the American marketplace for goods made by forced or bonded laborers, including children, “slaves” in common parlance.
The Senate approved a wide-ranging trade bill, 75-20, officially doing away with this “consumptive demand” clause from the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. The only remaining step is for President Obama to sign the measure into law, something he has already agreed to do.
These developments in the U.S. Senate are welcome news for the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. For several years, the elimination of the consumptive demand clause has been a central element in our advocacy agenda in Washington. We applaud Senator Sherrod Brown and Senator Ron Wyden for their defense of the rights of workers forcibly toiling to produce so many of the goods used by Americans every day. The permanent closure of this loophole is an important step in the battle against human trafficking and forced labor. Equally critical will be translating this normative change into practice, a move that we look forward to contributing to, together with policymakers in Washington.
The issue of exploitative labor and its impact on human lives has global import. The FXB Center at Harvard has documented the harsh reality of contemporary forced and bonded labor in several sites, in Eastern Europe and in Asia. A key focus is children from poverty stricken rural Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in North and East India. Trafficked from their villages to exploitative labor sites in carpet factories or jewelry sweatshops further West, these children are exposed to unimaginable hardship, violence and deprivation. Government measures to “rescue and reintegrate” them into their home communities are fraught with difficulties and limitations. Small wonder that within a matter of months, many are re-trafficked back to situations like those they were rescued from. Cutting the profitable supply and demand nexus to American markets will have a significant impact on reducing the factors that drive these profoundly exploitative processes. We celebrate this rare snippet of good news and look forward to contributing to ensuring that the legislative advance in Washington translates into human rights progress across the world.
 In the coming days Harvard FXB Center will release Is This Protection?, a new report documenting its investigation into current anti-trafficking practices in Rajasthan and Bihar. The report will be available on this website.
-by Arlan Fuller and Jacqueline Bhabha