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COMMENTARY: Slavery and the global supply chain

Companies and consumers need to understand whether their supply chains are tethered to forced labor

   Despite growing nationalism, today’s world remains highly interconnected and global. This presents many opportunities for businesses, ranging from innovating through research and development to sourcing raw materials and labor from around the world.
   Human capital, our collective ability to think and innovate, remains our biggest asset, yet we limit that potential in the way we treat each other. Just last week, a bipartisan group of fifteen U.S senators joined together to urge the advancement of human rights here and abroad. With all the dysfunction in Washington, that speaks volumes.
   Speaking to a wider TED audience, Pope Francis echoed this sentiment: “How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us.”
   Powerful.
   Toward this critical end, businesses must understand slavery and its impact on the global supply chain, and then craft an individualized social compliance system to eliminate it.
   Why? It has been argued that it’s good business. And it is certainly good business when you consider the impact if your brand were to be stigmatized by a cataclysmic loss of life, such as the 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. In that single event, more than 1,130 workers died manufacturing apparel for some of the nation’s largest retail brands.
   But that argument, while true, is as shallow as the thinking that is the catalyst to such tragedies. Businesses (and their officers, directors, shareholders and customers) should care about their supply chain for a much more fundamental reason: Humans are not commodities. People are not disposable.
   We must stand in solidarity to protect the sanctity of human life because human life should not be an article of trade. Child labor, forced labor and slavery treat human life as an expendable commodity to be abused, used and consumed for pecuniary gain.
   Products made from child labor, forced labor and trafficked, slave labor are so intertwined in our markets that even the savviest consumer unwittingly participates in the global slave trade. Take a look at slaveryfootprint.org.
   It attempts to approximate the number of slaves necessary to support a given person or family based on their pattern of consumerism. According to this resource, I once had about 48 slaves that “supported” my lifestyle.
   One reason: I like “sparkles.” Whether it’s in my makeup, the paint of my BMW, or in many household items in my kitchen, those “sparkles” come at a human cost. Mica, which gives the sparkle to those items, is illegally mined by some 20,000 children in India. Check out the Responsible Mica Initiative, which pledges to eliminate child labor from mica production by 2022, to see which companies have joined that movement.
   In the words of the educator Anna Lappé “every time you spend your money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” Read. Learn. And cast your “pocket-book” vote wisely. The point is not to stigmatize any specific company or product mentioned here. They are illustrative and sadly, not unusual. They exemplify that slavery touches everyday products, many of which we need and many more of which we desire. You must be an informed consumer who conducts independent research on the steps the companies you support take in keeping slavery out of their supply chains.
   What is forced labor? What is child labor? What about modern-day slavery? How are they related to forced labor? Is it all human trafficking? Good questions.
   The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines “child labor” as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. This work is harmful to their physical and mental development. Globally, there are currently about 168 million children exploited in this manner, with the lion’s share (some 58.6 percent) working in agriculture. Child labor is also prevalent in mining, quarrying, manufacturing, construction, restaurants, hotels, transportation and services.
   Forced labor in the United States can include sex trafficking or labor trafficking because the elements of violence, severe exploitation and control are similar. Notably, sex trafficking is separately defined under United States’ law and is not addressed here, although it is important to note that both sex and labor slavery can occur together. Also, outside the purview of this article are trafficking in organs, child soldiers, mail-order brides, sex tourism and adoption.
   The Forced Labor Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and Title 18 of the United States Code provide legal definitions. But for our purposes, investigative journalist and author E. Benjamin Skinner characterizes it well – slavery occurs when someone is forced to work for no pay beyond subsistence.
   Force includes physical, mental and emotional “force.” Some indicators of forced labor, human-trafficking or slavery include:

   1. Withholding wages
   2. Withholding identification documents such as licenses and passports
   3. Threatening violence by physical force or intimidation
   4. Using sexual violence to intimidate or control
   5. Fraudulent debts or debt bondage (tricked into paying an endless debt)
   6. Restricting movement by coercion or brute force.

   Such indications may be present as it relates to domestic work, construction, agriculture and food supply, harvesting, fishing, manufacturing, sexual exploitation, and forced begging, among others.
   Twenty-one million people are engaged in forced labor, 55 percent of whom are women. The ILO estimates about $150 billion in illegal profit is derived from the trafficking of forced labor.
   Child labor and/or forced labor are used in making bricks, carpets and garments, as well as in harvesting cocoa, coffee, tobacco, sugarcane and rice, and mining coal, gold and diamonds. Stop and think for a second – chocolate, coffee, tomatoes, lettuce – whose hands are picking or harvesting these? Whose hands are responsible for bringing to us the food we place in our bodies?
   I’m currently working on a case where slave labor is being used on farms in the United States. Here’s another example.
   Do you know cobalt is a mineral mined in the Congo? It is used in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, which are in your smartphone and weigh the same as two to four pennies. In your laptop those batteries are as light as a slice of bread. Our lighter, more mobile “lifestyle” comes at the cost of child labor and mining-related deaths and pollution.
   Not only are lithium-ion batteries powering smartphones and laptops, but also electric vehicles manufactured by a variety of electronics and automotive multinational corporations. Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability are buzz words in today’s corporate lexicon. Yet, cobalt mining juxtaposes two of its pillars against each other – environmental objectives against social objectives.
   You see, apart from convenience (smartphones in pockets and laptops on laps) we went to lithium-ion batteries because they were the “green” alternative to toxic, heavy batteries, and therefore better for the environment. And those electric and driverless cars that are becoming more common would be impossible without lithium-ion technology.
   Does your business connect in any way to any of these products? Even if it doesn’t, do you know where each and every widget comes from? What about the widgets that make up the widget? Each component part to your product or service must undergo scrutiny from a supply chain perspective.
   There is a body of law both here and abroad that regulates supply chains. The ones mentioned here are by no means exhaustive. In 2015, the United Kingdom passed the Modern Slavery Act that obligates businesses with annual turnover of £36 million or more to disclose the steps they take to tackle slavery in their supply chains.
   In the United States, California passed the Transparency in Supply Chains Act in 2010. That law requires certain companies to report on their specific actions to eradicate slavery in their supply chains. Executive Order 13627 seeks to ferret out slavery in federal contracting, while Executive Order 13126 is intended to ensure that U.S. federal agencies do not procure goods made by forced labor or child labor.

Products made from child labor, forced labor and trafficked, slave labor are so intertwined in our markets that even the savviest consumer unwittingly participates in the global slave trade.

   Involve your legal team as you explore compliance with these regulations and begin crafting an individualized plan to better ensure a supply chain free from child labor, forced labor and slavery.
   First, find out whether there are any efforts already underway within your industry that seek to eliminate slave labor from its supply chains and join that network, learn from best practices, and employ those practices ensuring you revise as needed based on advancements in your industry or in technology.
   Second, if there is no collaborative entity, then your business has the opportunity to be the trailblazer in crafting a social compliance system to which others will look as your industry’s gold standard. The Department of Labor’s website has a Toolkit for Responsible Business that includes a Social Compliance System model. Recommendations include:

   1. Engagement of stakeholders
   2. Assessment of risks and impact
   3. Development of a code of conduct
   4. Communication and training across supply chain including subcomponents of the supply chain
   5. Compliance monitoring
   6. Remediation of violations
   7. Independent review of the system
   8. Performance reporting
   9. Review and revision of the system based on industry changes and technological advancement.

   This is a dynamic, non-linear process. NXP, Hewlett Packard, ADP Food Group, Apple, Carlson Companies, Fortescue Metals Group, Gildan and Twinings were some of the finalists in Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Stop Slavery Award, given to businesses that take concrete steps to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains and who demonstrate integrity, courage and innovation in that process.
   Good business is good for business.
   Be focused, be motivated and be encouraged. As William Wilberforce aptly observed: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.” Look in the mirror. You are the leader. Your actions or inactions matter to the lives of men, women and children. How wonderful it would be to “rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us” and ensure their basic human rights are being upheld.

Crystal Freed is a lawyer. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida and is the managing partner of The Freed Firm, P.A.

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