Eradicating Human Trafficking from Business Supply Chains through Increased Transparency

By Nathalie Liautaud, Senior Program Advisor, PADF

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Think for a moment about this number: 21 million people around the world are victims of forced labor. They are often coerced and later trapped in jobs from which they cannot escape. Of that number, more than 1.8 million are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Meanwhile, many companies with extensive supply chains are profiting, wittingly or not, from this form of modern day slavery.

“We can’t go deeper in the 21st century knowingly allowing this disaster to persist,” said Bennett Freeman of Calvert Investments, a D.C.-based company that invests in socially responsible businesses, at a recent U.S. House of Representatives briefing addressing how business transparency can be an effective tool in combating forced labor and human trafficking in business supply chains. Mr. Freeman was spot-on.

Unfortunately, this issue - forced labor and trafficking for labor - has long been unresolved. However, it is now garnering more attention thanks to the support ofRepresentative Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY)—a great champion in the fight against human trafficking, I might add—who is developing and proposing national legislation requiring businesses to disclose information about their efforts to address slavery/forced labor within their business operations, including their supply chain. The legislation under consideration (H.R. 2759), which is co-sponsored by eight other Members of Congress, is based on a California law passed in 2010 that requires companies to disclose information about their supply chains. The California law, thought to be weaker than originally proposed, relies mostly on businesses self-monitoring and disclosing information that the company wishes to make public. Although insufficient, experts say this legislation has helped raise awareness of force labor issues within supply chains, and move the process forward. H.R. 2759, impacting businesses at the national level, would require businesses to disclose information about their efforts to address slavery / trafficking and forced labor within their business operations, including supply chain and labor management, and enforce compliance.

Given the severity of forced labor within business supply chains, it is important that private sector companies support the legislation, said Karen Stauss, Program Director for Free the Slaves. The Maloney legislation is not meant to impose restrictions on businesses, but rather prompt businesses to understand who is working at every level of their supply chains. It also ensures that consumers have the ability to choose products that are not tainted with forced labor. Businesses not only have an economic interest in this, Stauss added, but also a moral duty to eradicate this form of forced labor from their operations.  Ultimately, it will save lives.

Eradicating forced labor from supply chains, however, is not a simple matter. For example, a prepared shrimp cocktail purchased at a local supermarket can have its origin in different—and remote—parts of the globe, imported through various supply chains that could be relying on forced labor without the knowledge of a company or even a supplier. Cathy Feingold, Director of the International Departments at AFL-CIO, suggested that if consumers were more aware of this reality, perhaps they would choose not to source their shrimp from a company that lacked transparency in its supply chain. The reduction in sales would potentially force a company to re-examine its supply chain and make appropriate changes to ensure labor conditions were acceptable.

For a more transparent system to take hold, labor unions and businesses must work together. Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, a Georgetown University professor and former head of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP) highlighted the need for governments to also be involved without being intrusive. This must be done with the understanding that governments change periodically and don’t always coordinate effectively within themselves, added Louis Alexander, Senior Programs Director for the Pan American Development Foundation. This lack of dialogue can negatively impact an effort such as this one. For this reason, policy makers and advocates must work hand in hand with civil society organizations, and private sector partners because they remain constant and understand local challenges and the impact of policies on communities.  

Ultimately, as I said before, the concerted effort of government, private sector companies, civil society, labor unions and the public at large will save lives. That’s what Flor Molina, an anti-human trafficking advocate and survivor, fights for every day. Sharing her personal story during the briefing, Ms. Molina recounted how a trafficker enticed her with employment in the United States, and forced her to work up to 18 hours a day in a clothing factory in Los Angeles after she arrived from Mexico. She said: “I realized that the other regular workers were free, but I was not allowed to take one step outside of the factory. My trafficker constantly told me that nobody would know if I disappeared or died.” She added: “If there would have been any implementing laws that protected and prevented human trafficking or that made companies responsible, I wouldn’t have gone through that horrible situation.” 

By supporting strong new legislation, we will not only spur greater transparency, but help protect those who don’t have a voice.