Experts on human trafficking and slavery are calling for strong involvement by the private sector in tackling the enormous challenge of these abuses, particularly with girls and women. At the same time, the experts, who spoke at a recent panel discussion held at the United Nations, recognized the daunting task in asking industry to participate in contending with these occurrences — and even crimes — yet they say that more consumer awareness about these incidents can help.
The panel presentation, “Combatting the Trafficking of Women and Girls: What Role Can the Private Sector Play in Addressing and Preventing Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery?” took place on March 16 at the 60th Commission on the Status Women meetings last month.
The presentation sponsors were the UN missions of Hungary, Liechtenstein and United States, whose officials shared the panel with others from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Labor Organization and the Global Compact; the private sector; and Shirley Pryce, a trade union activist and former domestic worker.
Another major presentation on human trafficking and modern slavery was presented more recently by the Holy See mission to the UN on April 7. The afternoon program reinforced Pope Francis’ work on ending these abuses and featured such voices as the Santa Marta Group, a collaboration founded in 2014 by the Pope to strengthen global coordination to fighting human trafficking and contemporary slavery. The group consists of senior law enforcement chiefs from about 30 countries, senior representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and civil society organizations and is named after the Pope’s residence in the Vatican.
“Slavery is a crime that disregards and undermines the humanity of its victims,” said Aurelia Frick, the foreign minister of Liechtenstein, at the March event. “Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to being enslaved.”
Among the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals adopted last September, three address the human trafficking industry, which the International Labor Organization estimated in 2014 as generating annual profits of $150 billion.
For example, a target in Goal 5 calls for the elimination of “all forms of violence against all women and girls in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.” Another target, of Goal 8, commits member states “to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”
Despite laws and bans against slavery globally, it “exists in every single country today,” Frick said, with more than 21 million people trapped in some form of modern-day slavery. She said that the International Labor Organization has found that more than 55 percent of people bought and sold are women and girls. Of the total number of 20.9 million forced laborers in the world, 18.7 million, or 90 percent, are exploited in the private economy by individuals or enterprises.
Slave-related activities are often embedded in multinational networks of supply chains, with huge implications for the $1.2 trillion global apparel industry and much of the manufacturing taking place in developing countries.
The main responsibility “lies on the consumer side,” Frick said, to make sure consumers do not “inadvertently” finance modern slavery. One sign of exploitation is the sale of excessively cheap items.
Building consumer awareness on “traceability” channels, as they are called, is a project of the UN’s Global Compact and other organizations. So far, no tipping point for a specific technological solution on tracing supply chains from start to finished products has emerged.
“Modern slavery is one of the most significant crimes of our times,” said Katalin Novak, Hungary’s minister of state for family and youth affairs at the March event. She noted that her nation’s large Roma population is more likely to be subjected to trafficking than other Hungarians and that the country has established measures to aid all victims.
These include, Novak said, safe houses where victims can stay for 90 days or more, when needed; state compensation for victims; a hotline; training for police officers; and awareness-raising through cultural events such as theater and film. The government has also engaged in a “don’t become a victim abroad” campaign in Hungary to warn people of potential scams while traveling.
At the heart of human trafficking is the exploitation of people, said Kevin Cassidy, senior communications and external relations officer at the International Labor Organization, at the March session.
What are causes of forced labor?
Poverty “pushes people to do desperate things.” Sharing his own family’s experience, he noted that being marginalized or ostracized from society also puts people at risk. His niece, living in North Carolina, was a vulnerable girl who, while spending time on social media, was recruited by a man who convinced her to meet him behind a shopping mall. Family members discovered the texts and alerted the police in time, who found the man’s van behind that mall — with other trafficked girls inside.
Shirley Pryce, the president of the Jamaican Domestic Workers Union, was mistreated in her own country while serving as a domestic worker, at one point forced to sleep in an employer family’s doghouse after returning at night from school. She overcame her circumstances, completing degrees in social work and labor rights.
Pitiful wages also contribute to a slavelike atmosphere for some garment workers. In Asia, where much of the apparel manufacturing takes place, a report by the International Labor Organization showed that China paid the highest wages, with a monthly minimum pay of nearly $300 a month. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh had the lowest monthly wages, at $66 and $68, respectively.
Sarah Mendelson, the US representative to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, said at the March presentation that the US mission to the UN wanted to build a coalition of member states and chief executives of major companies to commit to “making their supply chains free of forced labor.”
Ideas shared by some member states on attaining these goals include engaging civil society, she said. “Others are keen to use technology to map supply chains. Understanding how supply chains operate, where key suppliers are located, and what working conditions exist in those locations and sectors is vital to helping a company gain control of its supply chain and target areas with high risks for human trafficking.”
“What we want to see is member states and companies and consumers agreeing to take action to make supply chains free of forced labor and therefore helping make the SDGs real,” Mendelson added.
It wasn’t easy to get members of the private sector to come to the event, she noted, with some expressing the possibility that attending a program on trafficking in their industry would make them look bad. “Getting businesses to collaborate with member states will be a challenge,” she said. “We’re still very much in the idea phase of this effort.”
Yet legislation is now in place in Britain to create a “supply chain transparency,” said a panelist at the Holy See program. Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner of Britain, said that since April 1, “all companies trading over a threshold of 36 million [British pounds] in the UK in their business or supply chains anywhere in the world” will have to “produce annual statements showing what they are doing to ensure their business and supply chain is slavery free.”
Whenever consumers buy a mobile phone, clothes or cars, he added, “there are so many checks and balances on every element of that material and that product.
“But what checks and balances are there on human beings?” he asked. “It’s important we engage with the private sector in a way that’s inclusive so that we can start to change that culture.”
In a post-conversation with PassBlue about the challenges of getting the private sector on board, Cassidy of the International Labor Organization said in an email that initially most businesses considered trafficking a primarily law enforcement issue.
“However, when our research showed that forced labour occurs in sectors with a high degree of informal labour relations and lengthy subcontracting chains, such as agriculture and food processing, businesses were very receptive to working with us. They know it is in their interest.”
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.