Don't just arrest: buy better to stop slavery, states urged

ATHENS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Governments will not end labor exploitation or human trafficking by simply targeting criminals and should focus on ensuring the goods and services they provide are free of abuses, a top official at Europe’s security watchdog said on Thursday.

Countries have little to no control over the actions of traffickers but can influence the private sector by requiring their suppliers to act ethically, said Valiant Richey of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Governments are increasingly examining their own supply chains due to their huge purchasing power and growing pressure to abide by the very rules that they apply to businesses, said the OSCE’s deputy coordinator for combating human trafficking.

“We can’t prosecute (cases of labor exploitation) fast enough ... the scope of the problem exceeds our ability to respond to it as law enforcement,” the former U.S. prosecutor told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a conference in Athens.

“But governments have control of what they buy - procurement strategy is so important,” he said. “It’s a way to fundamentally impact the marketplace for goods produced by exploited labor - to create a ripple effect that goes through the private sector.”

He spoke on the sidelines of an event on public procurement and trafficking where Athens launched a pilot project aiming to guarantee that all products and services the local government provides to residents are free of forced labor.

Australia in November passed an anti-slavery law that means not just companies but also public bodies must disclose how they tackle slavery, and Britain has faced calls to amend its 2015 world-first law to follow suit by covering the public sector.

Many European nations - such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands - have ramped up efforts to make public procurement more ethical and transparent in recent years, but it remains a “daunting” challenge for many governments globally, Richey said.

From departments such as education to transport, and with products as varied as pencils and airplanes, countries have the tough task of sourcing fairly across various sectors, he said.

“It’s very complex. Apple, for example, probably has tens of thousands of suppliers ... (but) for governments buying from Apple it’s just one of the supply chains they have to consider.”

Richey said nations may soon have to think about harmonizing their laws and policies on procurement to avoid placing onerous and excessive bureaucracy on the private sector within a region.

“How do multiple countries harmonize ... so a company doesn’t have to deal with 57 different sets of regulation across 57 countries in the OSCE? That is going to be very complicated.”

Experts at the conference said ethical procurement not only helps governments to create a level playing field whereby bad suppliers cannot undercut their fairer competitors, but lowers the reputational risk of taxpayer money funding forced labor.

About 25 million people worldwide are estimated to be victims of forced labor - found on farms, factories, and fishing boats - according to the United Nations’ labor agency.

Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit