Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Trade and slavery

Maryan Street's Customs and Excise (Prohibition of Imports Made by Slave Labour) Amendment Bill was drawn from the ballot last week, and is likely to come before the House on Wednesday. The bill does exactly what it says on the label: adds goods produced by slavery alongside those produced by prison labour as prohibited imports.

The bill is a moral necessity. While slavery is unambiguously banned in international law, and illegal in practically every country, it still exists [PDF]. There are an estimated 27 million slaves around the world, including hereditary slaves in Mauritania and Niger, child slaves in the plantations of West Africa, bonded debt-slaves in India, Brazil, Peru and the Philippines, illegal forced labour in China, and trafficked sex-slaves on every continent. The trade will only stop when the world unites not just to stick slavers in jail, but also to prevent them profiting from their crime. Street's bill will help do that.

The US does it already. The Tarriff Act of 1930 prohibits the entry into the US of

all goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions...
The US law defines "forced labour" as including "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for its nonperformance and for which the worker does not offer himself voluntarily". It includes both slave and forced child labour.

Some (including, sadly, the government-dominated Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee [PDF]) interpret trade agreements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and prohibiting such a ban. This relies on an extremely narrow interpretation of the GATT, and ignores the provision in Article XX to ban imports where necessary for the protection of human life and health or public morals. That article also includes a specific provision allowing the prohibition of goods produced by prison labour. It would be odd, to say the least, if this did not also extend to worse forms of forced labour produced under prison-like conditions, particularly when those forms are banned under international law and their use invites prosecution in New Zealand or in The Hague for crimes against humanity. But conceivably, another country could complain about it. And to that, I say "bring it on!" - this is exactly the sort of fight a progressive country like New Zealand should be picking.

Unfortunately it is not clear yet whether the government will support the bill. But hopefully they will. I find it difficult to imagine that even National would vote in support of slavery.