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How to Stop Human Trafficking

Friday, January 16, 2009

Curbing slave labor will require close partnerships between government and private enterprise.

Jumping out of a cab in Madagascar, where he was buying gemstones, Columbia Gem House President Eric Braunwart stepped into a deep, oozing puddle of mud. Knowing his favorite Italian-made loafer was ruined, the Washington State executive says he started to burn with anger. But a “lightening bolt” revelation stopped him short: he realized his one shoe cost more than most Madagascaris earn in one year. And Braunwart decided to do something about that.

Columbia Gem House became the first wholesale jewelry industry company committed to fair trade practices, including refusing to employ child or slave labor and prohibiting business practices such as demanding workers put in grueling hours for grossly low pay.

Especially in poor, isolated regions where mining is a mainstay, people are vulnerable to labor schemes that promise good wages or education but deliver abuse instead.

Human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit a person for profit. It has a devastating impact on individual victims, who suffer lasting physical and emotional trauma, rape, threats against self and family, or even death.

But the impact goes beyond individual victims: it undermines the health, safety, and security of all nations. It increases global health risks and fuels the growth of organized crime.

To address this specific problem, Columbia Gem House and Nyala Mines, Ltd., made human capital investments around the mines in Malawi where gems are born—starting a school for children so they have the opportunity to learn and are not vulnerable to exploitative labor schemes; providing housing for teachers; financing a hospital; drilling wells; and committing to a 30 percent local ownership plan.

Some of these investments, such as the school, were conceived explicitly as trafficking prevention measures. Others were designed to create an economic and social atmosphere in which families were less susceptible to the “too-good-to-be-true” schemes peddled by traffickers.

Human trafficking increases global health risks and fuels the growth of organized crime.

According to Braunwart, these activities were not only good for the communities where the company is operating; they have also been good for the company. The investments allowed Columbia to increase production by about ten times while only increasing costs by an estimated 10-20 percent, thus affirming that corporate engagement on the human trafficking issue can also benefit corporate bottom lines.

This story demonstrates something I’ve witnessed around the world: although thousands of individuals have joined the movement to end human trafficking, corporate commitment has lagged behind—unless an individual corporate champion such as Eric Braunwart steers his or her company in this direction. Braunwart does not consider himself a great altruist, though: after surveying U.S. consumers, he is convinced that, increasingly, consumers will not only support such policies but will also demand fair trade practices from the companies they patronize.

As consumers learn more about the global travesty called human trafficking, we should expect they will not want slave labor as an ingredient in the food they eat, or the shirt they wear, or the computer they use. Maintaining “clean” supply chains to prevent slave labor from tainting consumer products is an obligation business must accept and governments must monitor. This obligation is different from corporate social responsibility efforts that involve philanthropy beyond the firm’s own work. It is less about responsibility and more about accountability.

The fact is that goods enter the global marketplace and consumers have little or no knowledge of the complex supply chains and work conditions that resulted in their production. A recent example highlights this problem. In the fall of 2007, Gap withdrew a line of embroidered blouses and ordered an internal investigation after media reports revealed apparent child labor in a New Delhi sweatshop. One child, Jivaj, from West Bengal, described his experience: “Our hours are hard and violence is used against us if we don’t work hard enough. This is a big order for abroad, they keep telling us that…I was so tired I felt sick.”

Gap has publicly pledged unequivocal opposition to child labor. It is now partnering with the Global March Against Child Labor to establish an independent monitoring system for its products and to examine industry-wide solutions to child labor issues. Hopefully, Gap will follow through over a sustained period.

As more labor is outsourced to emerging markets, there is a greater likelihood that human rights violations may occur without corporate knowledge. Multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors in a production chain present major challenges for accountability. For example, Gap reportedly has 90 people located around the world whose job is to ensure compliance with their Code of Vendor Conduct.

It is not just a matter of positive community outreach or social responsibility to pay attention to this problem. Forced labor is legally prohibited under U.S. law, and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, requires parties to criminalize such conduct.

To underscore why products made using forced labor are banned from American markets, let me tell you about one slave labor survivor I met in Southeast Asia, Aye Aye Win.

Aye Aye Win was one of about 800 Burmese men, women, and children, desperate for employment, who had been lured to a shrimp processing plant in the middle of a jungle. The factory complex was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. Workers were not allowed to leave the compound. They could not use cell phones. They were not even paid.

Aye Aye tried to escape this labor camp, but she was caught, dragged back, beaten, tied to a stake in the middle of the common yard, refused food and water, and had her head shaved. All this to demonstrate to her colleagues what would happen to those who tried to escape.

This is forced labor. The high demand for inexpensive shrimp can result in harmful short cuts, and in some cases, such as that of Aye Aye, even slavery. In the United States, the public consumes more shrimp than any other seafood. Although the case of Aye Aye has not been linked to any U.S. importing company, it is cautionary.

Of course, it is first the responsibility of each government to enforce its laws regarding forced labor. But it is also incumbent upon the “buyer”—in this case, the larger companies that package the shrimp for export to international seafood wholesalers—to ensure that the products they provide for consumers are not derived even partly from forced labor.

Goods enter the global marketplace and consumers have little or no knowledge of the complex supply chains and work conditions that resulted in their production.

Denying products made with forced labor access to markets reduces incentives for exploitative employers and encourages ethical business behavior. But this is only possible when governments, businesses, and civil society organizations share information on export products and production chains.

Some businesses are taking an active role in attempting to cleanse production chains of forced labor. A year ago in Atlanta, Coca-Cola hosted the first high-level meeting of corporate executives and government officials to begin formulating a practical program for employers to use in order to identify forced labor and eliminate it. It was clear from a few corporate pioneers that confronting the risk of forced labor takes determination and dogged investigation.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) representatives talked about doing an investigation of a factory in Southeast Asia that HP was about to use. Against the wishes of the factory’s owners, their auditors insisted on seeing residential facilities on factory grounds where workers were housed. They found men and women whose documents were withheld (a common indicator of human trafficking). The workers were enduring forced overtime work, and their breaks could not last longer than 15 minutes (which was not enough time to get to the commissary and back). When the audit team informed the company that the site did not comply with the company’s zero tolerance rules against forced labor, they realized they were helping nix a contract worth many millions of dollars. But Hewlett-Packard complied with the auditors’ recommendation to cancel the contract until labor conditions were improved.

The U.S. government’s annual “Trafficking in Persons Report,” which ranks the efforts of foreign government efforts to confront this scourge, is based on year-round research and data collection. Because the State Department prepares this report, we have information that can help shape and inform companies as they examine their own production processes and supply chains.

There are significant steps that companies can take to combat forced labor. Each should maintain a code of ethical conduct banning forced labor and distribute their policy to all contractors and suppliers. Staff worldwide should be trained to recognize, monitor, and report on human trafficking in accordance with international definitions, not local cultural norms.

The U.S. government is committed to do its part through more intense tracking of international efforts and heightening public awareness. The U.S. Congress has directed the Department of Labor (DOL) to develop and make available to the public a list of goods, along with their countries of origin, that DOL has reason to believe are produced by forced labor or child labor in violation of international standards. That list will be out within the next few months.

Our message must be clear: in the United States, both the public and private sectors have zero tolerance for forced labor. Together, governments and corporations must take advantage of globalization’s many benefits in order to help end the outrage of human trafficking.

Ambassador Mark P. Lagon is the outgoing director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons. He will become executive director of Polaris Project in February.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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