Public Procurement to fight human trafficking – the OSCE approach

October 6, 2016 •

Radu bio photo

By Radu Cucos
Assistant Officer, Office of the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Trafficking in human beings (THB) as modern day slavery is one of the worst forms of human rights violation. Human trafficking is a denial of all the fundamental human rights recognized by the international community, including the rights to liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and expression, to dignity, and the right to a life without violence, exploitation and abuse.

The data on THB estimates is not optimistic. In its 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour, the International Labour Organization estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally and out of this total number, 14.2 million (68%) are victims of forced labour exploitation. However, few victims are identified and even fewer perpetrators convicted. For example, according to the 2015 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, 4,443 trafficking convictions were observed worldwide in 2014 and only 216 of them (4.9%) referred to labour trafficking.

The huge gap between the number of people trafficked and criminals brought to justice indicates that new approaches are needed to fight THB in order to complement already existing efforts. One such innovative approach is leveraging public procurement and its capability to change the business practices of the private sector.

Although the relationship between public procurement and THB is not an obvious one at first sight, the reality is that governments, especially those of OECD countries, are among the largest purchasers of goods and services globally. The US Federal government, for example, is the single largest purchaser in the world and spends more than 500 billion USD a year on governmental contracts. Governments, similar to private sector companies often pay the lowest possible price for goods and services and in this race to the bottom, state institutions can end up procuring goods and services made and provided by slave labour.

At the OSCE we are interested in learning about good examples of policies which use public procurement as a lever to combat THB. The US is a leader in this area with regulations, such as the Federal Acquisition Regulation. Ending Trafficking in Persons (2015); the Executive Order – Strengthening Protection Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts and the Trafficking Prevention in Foreign Affairs Contracting Act, which expressly prohibit federal contractors, contractor employees, subcontractors, and subcontractor employees from engaging in any types of trafficking-related activities. The EU’s Directive 2014/24/EU on public procurement is another good initiative which includes participation of an economic operator in human trafficking as a possible basis for exclusion from a procurement procedure. Other good practices from the OSCE region include Socially Responsible Public Procurement in Norway and Sweden’s Regions and County Councils Sustainable Procurement activities.

What is OSCE’s contribution in this field? As a hub of expertise, with vast knowledge in the field of human trafficking, the OSCE is trying to be a step ahead, to promote debate and conduct research on the latest trends, which is also the case regarding public procurement. The OSCE conducts research on the role governments and business play in eradicating THB, for example, its 2014 paper “Ending Exploitation. Ensuring that Businesses Do Not Contribute to Trafficking in Human Beings: Duties of States and the Private Sector”, providing recommendations on preventing and mitigating trafficking-related activities in government procurement and in private sector supply chains.

As the largest security organization in the world, the OSCE facilitates dialogue and shares good practices on human trafficking, most recently on how States can leverage public procurement to prevent THB.  The OSCE project “Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings in Supply Chains through Government Practices and Measures” aims to raise states’ capacity to adopt measures to prevent human trafficking in supply chains, especially through public procurement regulations.

A recent example of the OSCE’s work in promoting dialogue was our high-level conference focusing on the prevention of human trafficking for labour exploitation in supply chains held in Berlin last month. Gathering over 180 policy-makers and representatives from international organizations, the private sector, civil society, trade unions and academia, the conference discussed existing good practices, lessons learned and protection gaps. As a follow-up the OSCE will be organizing five capacity-building workshops for public procurement and THB experts.  During the next year we are also developing draft model guidelines on preventing trafficking in supply chains with a focus on government procurement practices and transparency measures.

What have we learned so far and what recommendations can we provide? Preventing THB through public procurement needs to be approached appropriately from the institutional perspective. Dialogue between public procurement authorities and institutions responsible for human trafficking needs to be established and capacities on both sides have to be developed and strengthened. Public procurement officers are not against incorporating anti-trafficking measures in their work but they need guidance and practical tools to help them efficiently manage this from the operational point of view.

Mostly the business community is glad to comply with well-designed regulations that create a level playing field and reduce the possibilities for irresponsible companies to capitalize on the exploitation of workers by unscrupulous employers. Therefore, governments should engage the private sector in dialogue and identify together the best ways to incorporate anti-trafficking efforts in the public procurement system. It is also important that state authorities work with companies that report trafficking cases, work together with them to provide remedies for victims and provide guidance on how to prevent exploitation from their supply chains.

Last but not least, we have to acknowledge that monitoring and enforcement concerning trafficking in government supply chains have not been addressed extensively so far. It is therefore important that countries and businesses share practices on monitoring and evaluation to learn from each other’s mistakes and achievements.