Friday, April 26, 2013

Modern slavery and corporate accountability for forced labor

by Madison Lichliter

A universal human right

Freedom is something that everyone hopes to achieve. But even in the 21st century, freedom has proven to be elusive for many as the number of human trafficking victims continues to increase. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 4 states that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” Despite the clear prohibition of slavery under international law, the International Labour Organization found that three out of every 1,000 people worldwide are engaged in forced labor today. It is clear that slavery still exists, and the epidemic is not solely attributable to third-world countries.

The prevalence of forced labor

Forced labor is one of the most pervasive forms of human trafficking across the world. Forced labor includes the recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining of humans, involved when a person uses force or physical threats, psychological coercion, abuse of the legal process, deception, or other coercive means to compel someone to work. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, forced labor accounts for 36% of the forms of exploitation of all detected victims of trafficking worldwide, a figure that has doubled over the past four years. From a domestic perspective, the U.S. Congress found that approximately 50,000 women and children are trafficked into the United States alone each year. Individuals, most commonly women and children, see the United States as an opportunity for a better life, and the promise of a job here provides an allure that is difficult to turn down, making them susceptible to unscrupulous traffickers. As the State Department TIP Report highlighted, for people desperate to obtain employment to provide for and support their families, a job can also come with extreme costs, sometime in the form of modern slavery.

Domestic legislative action

The U.S. has taken legislative action to address the degrading institution of slavery that has continued throughout the world. In 2000, Congress recognized that trafficking in persons is the largest manifestation of slavery today. It passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) with the purpose of combatting trafficking in persons and ensuring just and effective punishment of traffickers and protection of their victims. That same year, the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol) was passed as well. At the state level, legislation such as California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires companies to incorporate anti-trafficking measures into their procedures.

Challenges to ending forced labor: Financial motivation and globalization

Despite domestic and international action, a primary reason that the human trafficking problem has not ended is financial motivation. According to the International Labour Organization, human trafficking is believed to generate estimated profits of $32 billion. Forced labor, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is an integral aspect of many business operations. Forced labor provides corporations with the ability to pay cheap wages, which counteracts any incentive to put an end to forced labor. In the United States, the analogy to the history of slavery for economic gain should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, the focus on money continues to facilitate the practice of forced labor in our modern era.

In addition, the speed of globalization has led to the development of extremely complex supply chains, making the detection of human trafficking difficult. Because the pace of globalization continues to increase, there is a need for corporations to develop strong frameworks that take into consideration human rights.  

State Department Trafficking in Persons Report:

Young girls are forced to work in domestic servitude in market stalls in Gabon.
Mechanisms for supporting corporate accountability

Action has indeed been taken to address the specific issues of trafficking in the context of corporations. In recent years, corporate accountability has become an important human rights topic, and human rights advocates are demanding that corporations be held responsible for their procurement, supply chains, and other business practices.

On June 16, 2011, the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, implementing the UN “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework. The Guiding Principles establish a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of businesses negatively impacting fundamental human rights. As the issue draws more attention, corporations are realizing that in order to sustainably grow, human rights concerns, such as forced labor, must be addressed. At an international meeting in Ankara, Turkey, United Nations Special Rapporteur Joy Ngozi Ezeilo urged business enterprises around the world to refrain from using trafficked labor, and to prevent and monitor the use of such labor by its suppliers. She stated,
“Trafficking in persons is a global phenomenon which crosses borders, markets and industries. In today’s globalized world, the risks of human trafficking in supply chains are significant throughout economic sectors and affect all States, whether as source, transit or destination countries…”

 Ezeilo hinted that the solution lies in a multifaceted approach: governments must take legislative and policy measures, businesses must refrain from using trafficked labor and prevent and monitor the use of such labor by suppliers, and consumers and the media must shape corporate and governments’ behavior. Everyone has a role to play in combatting trafficking for persons for forced labor.

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