Photo Courtesy of ILO.
Three months after the worst earthquake in 80 years slammed Nepal, human trafficking became one of the first threats to fester amid the destruction. Nepalese IDPs, already vulnerable from the destruction and anxious to ameliorate their situation whether by escaping or earning an income, have become easy targets for traffickers. Children and women are being lured into the modern day slave-trade, becoming laborers in the sex and construction industries.
Just five days after the three month anniversary of Nepal’s tragedy, the U.N. observed World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, a day set to remind the world that not only is modern slavery still alive — it’s thriving. There are 35.8 million people across the world today who are victims of human trafficking according to Walk Free’s 2014 Global Slavery Index. Though the number is large, that the industry is endorsed through everyday business transactions is the real danger fueling the crime.
“It is an industry,” said Secretary of State John Kerry at a on July 27 ceremony during the release of the U.S. Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report. And the second largest criminal industry at that. It’s estimated to bring in $150 billion worth of illicit income — four times the previously estimated figure.
“Modern slavery doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s connected to a host of 21st century challenges, including the persistence of extreme poverty, discrimination against women and minorities, corruption, and other failures of governance, the abuse of social media, and the power and reach of transnational organized crime,” said Kerry as he called on all stakeholders in global supply chains from businesses to consumers to become vigilant activists.
Even before the earthquake, Nepal ranked fifth out of the countries with the highest prevalence of human trafficking (including child marriage, debt bondage, and sex trade) involving an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 girls a year. And in India, where the literacy rate is around 60 percent, uneducated people are routinely exploited as traffickers trick bonded laborers into overpaying their debt many times over.
During emergency situations such as Nepal’s most recent earthquake, education — a safe place to play and learn — is a critical element of protecting children. As systems break down, homes are destroyed and jobs and stability are lost, children can be viewed as able-bodied workers who can help support the family. In the absence of teachers and the hope for future education, schoolwork is replaced with child labor. Work in these situations, though, is unpredictable and poorly paid (if paid at all) — particularly as infrastructure is demolished by natural disasters or conflicts like that in Gaza — and families often are forced to flee their homes, becoming refugees in other countries. Tragically, it is in this vulnerable state of desperation for survival and determination for their futures that families fall victim to the deception of traffickers in an attempt to survive.
As Kerry said during the report’s release, it is up to all factions of society to resist modern slavery. “The private sector also needs to be a part of this effort by blowing the whistle on companies that use labor that is under age, underpaid, and under coercion,” he said.
As Jonathan Todres, a lawyer specializing in combatting human trafficking, wrotein California Law Review Circuit, the private sector is uniquely positioned within the streams of commerce to interrupt the human trafficking current. There are concrete measures that businesses can take including those below from the U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, the International Labor Organization Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings report, and Concordia’s most recent campaign to combat labor trafficking.
1. Invest in education.
One of the most fundamental ways business can actively combat human trafficking is by investing in education in the communities in which they operate. This would equip their community stakeholders (and potentially, future supply chain stakeholders) with literacy and numeracy to negotiate their wage and become aware of their basic rights.
2. Build anti-trafficking policies into human rights protocol.
This would identify potential holes making their operations vulnerable to risks of human trafficking and would increase awareness among their staff so that everyone could be held responsible. Ideally, companies would even prepare parallel remediation plans to establish next-steps once a concern has been identified and to prevent operational losses.
3. Collaborate with experts in the field.
Although it’s empowering for businesses to invent their own procedures to tackle human trafficking, they can (and should) also consult high-level and seasoned “experts” in the human rights and policy space. Government officials, NGOs, and recruiters in their source countries should not be overlooked; often these are the best stakeholders for businesses to approach when assessing workers’ vulnerabilities.
4. Involve high-level executives.
The most robust anti-trafficking policies includes awareness from the top down; not only should executives approve the policies but they should promote it and integrate it into the company’s day-to-day operations. As top management often approves suppliers, this approach will ensure that fair labor practices are considered from the outset.
5. Map out the supply chain — all the way down.
Trace the supply chain back to the raw materials and then tailor anti-trafficking policies to region-specific risks and industry-specific vulnerabilities. Businesses should always extend their human rights policies beyond direct employees to apply to subcontractors, labor recruiters, and others.
6. Communicate the ethical principles to working level associates.
By including all stakeholders in the human rights discussion, businesses can empower workers both by educating them on their rights and by encouraging them to join trade unions or equivalent organizations. These organizations can teach them of their right to exercise “collective bargaining.”
7. Reach out to governments.
By collaborating with governments, businesses can ensure the social protection of their workers and their families, “both at source and destination areas, to reduce their indebtedness and poverty situation.” This includes safeguarding workers by increasing their access to existing government services.
8. Provide written employment contracts.
This empowers workers to become a negotiator within the workplace, rather than a victim. It also informs them of the terms of their labor, their wages, and their rights.