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By Kristin Casler, featuring Anita Ramasastry, UW Law Foundation Professor at the University of Washington School of Law; and Amol Mehra, Director of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable
About 21 million people worldwide are forced to labor, according International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates. Many of those workers were trafficked. All of them work for someone. You and your company may already run a tight program to ensure those laborers don’t work for you, a subsidiary, or someone in your supply chain. Perhaps your company feels compelled to do so to comply with state, federal and international regulations and to avoid fines and reputational damage. Could 2016 be the year you want to achieve more for anti-trafficking?
You may ask yourself what a single company can do to be an agent of change. Anita Ramasastry, UW Law Foundation Professor at the University of Washington School of Law said that first and foremost, you can use your leverage. She has three anti-trafficking wishes for 2016 that she believes corporate leverage can help fulfill.
Work together. Take the power of one company and multiply it times many, Ramasastry said. Even small companies can make a meaningful contribution to anti-trafficking efforts when they work cooperatively. Set an example, enlist the support of colleagues at other companies and work jointly toward supply chain and global objectives. Together you can establish guidelines and best practices for your industry. You can use the American Bar Association Model Business and Supplier Policies on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor as a starting place.
Coordinate the pressure. Take the collaborative efforts a step farther by exerting your combined influence on other companies, government agencies at home and abroad, civil societies and non-government organizations to get them on board. “Companies have no idea of their combined leverage,” Ramasastry said. “When there are problems with governments failing to act, companies working collectively can be a force for good.” By working with the U.S. State Department, the ILO, collaborating companies can pressure governments, she said.
Companies can target regions where efforts can be most effective. Ramasastry said she already is seeing coordinated efforts in Qatar surrounding the World Cup.
“Pick any geographic area— the Gulf States, Southeast Asia,” she said. “Civil society and NGOs only have so much clout to go to governments and to say, “Fix this!” She acknowledged that sometimes progress requires a little soft diplomacy. Working quietly, companies can exert combined power that achieves real change.
Turn your eyes homeward. 2015 saw the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, ending slavery in the United States. Yet some estimates put the number of forced laborers on our shores today at more than 50,000. And the victims are hidden in plain sight, in agriculture, construction, hotels, restaurants and domestic work.
Ramasastry said most people are aware of trafficking for the sex trade, but the problem is clearly more widespread. Many victims are forced to work to pay off recruiting debts, food and housing. Their conduct is often controlled, or they are forced to live at the work site. Many promises are not delivered on, and the workers have no idea of their rights.
Last February, a federal jury awarded $14 million to Indian guest workers who were defrauded and exploited in a labor trafficking scheme engineered by a marine services company, an immigration lawyer and an Indian labor recruiter who lured hundreds of workers to a Mississippi shipyard with false promises of permanent U.S. residency. When the workers arrived, they were required to live with 24 men packed into a trailer with just two toilets, and were under the watch of a 24-hour guard. They were charged $35 a day—forced to pay more than $1,000 a month—for room and board. The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Of course, above all, you need to comply with anti-trafficking regulations. Be sure you know the ins and outs of the many, many regulations and what your liability is under them. And, as long as you are working on compliance with existing regulations, Amol Mehra, director of the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, suggests complying with those that are proposed or that are merely guidelines, such as the ABA model rules. Companies can push those model rules down to their subsidiaries and suppliers.
“Don’t just respond to the regulations and how businesses are increasingly expected to perform now,” Mehra said. “Get ahead of the regulatory curve – stay apprised of what proposed bills are asking and work in advance. The scale of human trafficking is significant, and policy responses will only continue to develop to address it.”
While the federal government has not yet required companies to document that they and their supply chains are free of labor trafficking, California has. Even if you are not impacted by the California law, it is certainly good for a company’s image and work atmosphere to be able to make such a certification. It also is important to note that many investors seek socially responsible companies in which to place their money, Mehra said. Naturally, the penalties can be high for failing to make those certifications or to make them fraudulently.
In August, consumers filed a class action against Costco and its Asian shrimp suppliers under consumer protection laws and allege reporting violations under California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act for knowingly selling slave-labor shrimp.
Complying with the multitude of requirements and leveraging combined power for change requires a great deal of time, effort and resources. But in the end, your company, its workers and the workers of the world benefit.