Even as globalization has helped lift millions from poverty, it has also facilitated all manner of international crime. There is perhaps no more poignant example of this than cross-border forced labor. Such a pervasive transnational threat can no longer be addressed in isolation. As with many transnational threats facing the international community today, innovative solutions must be found that take into account the context, causes, and consequences of the problem.
Human trafficking has become a global phenomenon, valued at USD 31.6 billion each year. Preying on victims, especially women and children, made vulnerable through disempowerment, social exclusion, and economic vulnerability in their home country, the extent of victimization is vast. Estimated at between 700,000 and 800,000 people trafficked annually, at any given time there are more than 30 million victims in 137 countries around the globe.
Recognizing the extent of the threat, many governments have undertaken unilateral and multilateral efforts to address human trafficking. In its first term, the Obama administration has increased law enforcement interaction with survivors, initiated the Counter-Trafficking in Persons Policy through USAID, mandated federal contractors to implement a compliance program to protect supply chains, and established the Partnership for Freedom, a public-private partnership to improve human trafficking survivor care. What is less well-recognized is the breadth of business sectors that can knowingly or unwittingly become entangled in global trafficking networks, nor the negative impact human trafficking can have on their business operations. Bearing in mind the number of multinational corporations operating today, and their extensive reach worldwide, it is important to consider the role that the private sector can play in combating modern slavery, in collaboration with governments, multilateral organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society. By taking action against human trafficking, companies protect their financial interests and promote themselves as being socially responsible.
Industry can combat human trafficking by providing skills training to potential victims and survivors of victimizations and resources for prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration programs. For instance, Manpower, Inc., a Fortune 500 consulting firm with a worldwide network of 4,100 offices in 82 countries and territories, funds programs that help women and children recognize illegal recruiters and understand the risks involved. Manpower, Inc. also partners with governments and NGOs to provide employment training that reduces the risk of being trafficked.
Other well known corporations are taking action to reduce the vulnerability of potential victims. Microsoft, for example, has programs on the ground in the Asia-Pacific region. One such initiative, the “Unlimited Potential” program, aims to reduce poverty in areas rife with trafficking and to rehabilitate trafficking victims by teaching them technology skills. The program’s overall strategy seeks to reduce trafficking levels through promoting development, which undercuts factors that make certain parts of populations especially vulnerable to being trafficked. For both Manpower, Inc. and Microsoft, social responsibility is a large part of their business vision.
There has, nonetheless, only been limited success in attracting the private sector to act. The result is a largely untapped sphere with resources that can make a significant difference in anti-trafficking efforts. Identifying the needs and motives of the industry, therefore, is central to increasing successful engagement.
Following investigations into highly publicized allegations of child labor at a sub-contracted facility in 2007 located in India, the Gap clothing corporation not only reinforced its zero tolerance policy against child labor but also strengthened its policies and procedures. This resulted in improved supply chain tracking, enhanced monitoring, and education and awareness-raising. Gap now has a children’s rights advocacy program in eastern India. In addition, through partnership with an Indian government-aided NGO, the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses, and Gap suppliers, Gap has provided women with proper wages, enabling them to make a living and care for their children, which makes children less vulnerable to being trafficked for cheap labor. Certainly, Gap was motivated in large part by the need to protect its brand name. Widely publicized trafficking scandals can be detrimental for business, demonstrating that being preventative can actually be beneficial for the private sector.
Governments, multilateral organizations, NGOs, and civil society organizations must increase private sector awareness about human trafficking through workshops, training, and education programs for employees. Information about the effects of human trafficking, the potential weak links in the global supply chain and within businesses, the risks associated with being involved in human trafficking, knowingly or not, and the opportunities for the private sector to make a successful and sustainable impact need to be communicated effectively.
Additionally, governments should provide incentives for corporations to participate in anti-trafficking efforts. Possible incentives include positive recognition and financial benefits, such as tax incentives and competitive advantages. Additionally, supply chain security investments ultimately help companies avoid unnecessary costs over the long-term. These measures reduce theft, prevent disruptions in the supply chain, protect the assets and operations of the company, and, significantly, reduce the likelihood of illicit labor. Moreover, consumers are increasingly aware of trafficking issues and because of this, are more loyal to ethical businesses, even when it comes at a higher cost. Brand image and consumer opinion, thus, play an important role in motivating business to act in this sphere. Finally, the private sector should be encouraged to self-regulate and develop “best practice templates” for normative ethical standards, increase dialogue between industries and government, and enhance supply chain management and security.
The far-reaching effects of human trafficking highlight the need for innovative solutions and resources. The involvement of the private sector is, thus, critical in the fight against human trafficking. Because it is in many instances a labor issue, and not just a human rights issue, being leaders in anti-trafficking should simply be good business.
Sydney Fields was an intern with the Managing Across Boundaries initiative during the Fall of 2012.