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An Interview with Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings: Part I

An Interview with Valiant Richey, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings: Part I

Valiant Richey is the OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, where he represents the OSCE at the political level on anti-trafficking issues, and assists Participating States in the development and implementation of anti-trafficking strategies and initiatives. Previously, he worked for thirteen years as a prosecutor in Seattle handling sexual assault, child exploitation and human trafficking cases. In the first part of our interview series, slavefreetrade had the opportunity to discuss with him what makes labour trafficking especially challenging to tackle, as well as how demand-side strategies are key for addressing this problem. 

The OSCE notes that trafficking for labour exploitation is one of the most prevalent forms of trafficking in human beings (THB) across the world but amongst the least addressed. What makes this form of human trafficking especially challenging to tackle, in terms of prevention, prosecution and protection of victims? 

There’s a number of reasons for that. I think one reason is that when you see somebody working who might be exploited, it [does not obviously appear to be] illegal. And that makes it really tricky to identify. It’s not, for example, like a fight or a knife attack, which obviously looks like something harmful. You may not know the person working in a field has had their passport taken from them, or that [they are] in debt bondage just by looking at them. And this makes [labour trafficking] incredibly difficult to identify. 

Second of all, there are certain forms of labour exploitation which are even more hidden. Here I’m referring, for example, to domestic servitude, where you might have people working in a private residence. Most labour inspectorates don’t have the authority to even inspect private residences, and so it makes it really hard to find [the victims]. And if you can’t identify it, you can’t protect them, you can’t offer them assistance, you can’t support them. If you can’t identify [the crime], it is very difficult to build a case and to prosecute… even though we know that it’s happening on a huge scale.

That brings us to the third concept that you mentioned, prevention. Prevention is [perhaps] one of the most promising areas where you can address this, because you can try to make people aware of possible risky situations, you can try to ensure that employers are not allowed to exploit persons like this. And that’s one way to address it. But it’s really hard to detect it, and that’s why we see such low prosecution and identification rates when it comes to trafficking for labour exploitation.

The demand for goods and services produced by or extracted from victims is a key driver of forced labour and labour trafficking. What are some strategies to counter and reduce the demand-side of this problem, and who are the most important stakeholders to target?

Well, you’re exactly right. The attention to the demand side has not been nearly as strong as it should be. Now, I don’t think there’s a lot of people out there who really are saying, “I want to buy things from trafficking victims”, right? They are not intending on trying to prop up trafficking through their purchases, but knowingly or unknowingly, they do so. And one of the reasons for that is because the market is always trying to push costs down. And that incentivises suppliers to look for the lowest cost, which incentivises other companies to try to get the cheapest labour and of course, you start to degrade protections and rights for workers. So what do we do about that? 

I think there’s several possibilities. The first is that countries can adopt what is called due diligence legislation. This is legislation which requires companies and in some cases, governments to conduct some kind of due diligence about what they are buying or the labour that they are hiring. This is a basic set of protections, and countries can adopt legislation that helps to require these steps to [be put into place]. I really think that this is an area where we’re seeing a lot of good developments right now. The European Union [has announced] some guidance around due diligence. Germany just adopted a due diligence law recently, [so has] Norway. So we’re seeing a lot of development in this area. Second, we can put in place import bans. For example, the United States and other countries have recently been banning the importation of goods that were made with forced labour. The reason this matters is because if you’re stopping those things, you’re saying “we are no longer going to pay for trafficking”. You’re stopping [such] goods and services from coming into your country in the first place, so that they don’t enter the supply chains and aren’t bought by people. This is a very interesting avenue. And then a third option is around public procurement measures. This is where governments can actually say “we don’t want to buy into trafficking,” and will require vendors to adopt provisions and protection mechanisms.

In your opinion, where are the remaining gaps in such demand-side strategies and how can they be made more effective?

That’s a great question, because obviously, we haven’t won yet, right? There is still a lot of trafficking out there. And unfortunately, in fact, the estimates are that there are millions of trafficking victims. So why given the tools I just mentioned, are we not seeing trafficking being eradicated? I think the main answer is that we haven’t implemented all those laws and those measures as much as we should be doing. So I would say implementation is a major gap. And that includes [the fact that] companies and governments need operational plans on how to implement these laws. They need to really enhance their organisational culture around prohibiting forced labour in their supply chains. We’ve seen examples of this in a few different countries. United Kingdom has their Modern Slavery Act, France has a due diligence law, both of which are really, I think, groundbreaking statutes in a number of ways. But some of the challenges to those statutes, or the criticisms, have been that compliance with them has been too little. Companies are often checking the boxes, but not necessarily really working to eradicate forced labour from their supply chains. I think this is an example of [how] there’s a need for strong implementation if we’re going to make a difference.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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