$150 billion. According to the International Labour Organization, that’s the revenue generated by each year by forced labor for those who place more value on profit than people. From sex traffickers making a business out of prostitution, to international corporations relying on forced labor to keep costs down, every day an estimated 21 million men, women and children around the world are exploited in silence. That’s the equivalent of the amount of people living in New York, London and Paris together.
Of the many kinds of forced labor, sex trafficking grabs the most headlines. Yet, labor trafficking on both a local and international scale remains hidden in the shadows. The Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, has received more than 4,000 reports of labor trafficking in the United States since 2007.
Labor trafficking is more challenging to investigate and prosecute than sex trafficking. The sale of sexual services is illegal in the United States, therefore police and prosecutors have much stronger authority to investigate whether a sex worker has been trafficked. If so they have the power to go after and prosecute those responsible for the crime. But forced labor is much harder to detect, and as a result, law enforcement must often rely on referrals from third parties, such as non-governmental organizations or foreign consulates – rather than build cases from the ground up.
Thankfully, there are many non-profit organizations dedicated to identifying and helping victims of labor trafficking. What we need now is for private businesses to join in.
Multi-national companies can play an essential role in the fight against forced labor: they have the power to trigger immediate change for workers by simply switching suppliers, by enforcing better auditing, and by increasing accountability.
Many corporations are already assisting in the fight. In 2014, our working group provided the financial services industry with guidance on identifying and reporting transactions that might be linked to human trafficking. Some of the world’s leading financial institutions adopted the group’s recommendations, including American Express, Bank of America, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase. These companies have expressed a willingness to be proactive, to identify red flags, and to help prosecutors build cases.
Financial intelligence is only the first step. Now, we have to tackle forced labor within corporations themselves.
No industry is untouched. Global outsourcing makes it easier for employers to take advantage of vulnerable workers, and harder for corporations to monitor and regulate the working conditions of those at the bottom of their supply chain. As a result, some goods made by forced labor can land undetected onto America’s shelves, making consumers unwilling accomplices.
Some progress is being made. High-profile multinational corporations have conducted bold internal audits in their supply chains. Many are now working transparently to get things right.
Recent legislative victories are also encouraging. President Obama’s administration recently closed an 85-year-old loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act by banning the importation of 136 goods produced by forced labor from 74 different countries. And a promising bipartisan bill, the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, would require companies that gross more than $100 million each year to disclose the steps they’ve taken to address trafficking in their supply chains.
But more must be done. Imagine the impact on a global scale if the world’s biggest corporations formally committed to eradicating forced labor in their supply chains.
That’s why, together with world-renowned artist Sir Anish Kapoor, the Thomson Reuters Foundation created the Stop Slavery Award: to honor businesses going above and beyond to ensure that their suppliers are not exploiting their workers or profiting off of forced labor.
The idea behind the Award is simple: to spark a virtuous cycle that will trigger more corporations to take action to investigate, improve, and eradicate unfair and illegal labor practices in their supply chains. The Award will also encourage consumers to make informed and responsible decisions on what goods they decide to buy.
Profits should never come at the expense of human rights. It’s time for companies to step up and protect the people who enhance their bottom line. Together we can put the business of human trafficking out of business.
The Stop Slavery Award is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation with pro bono support from law firm Baker & McKenzie. The first Stop Slavery Award winners will be honored at this year’s Trust Women Conference, to be held on November 30 in London.
For more information visit www.stopslaveryaward.com.