I have 65 slaves working for me. I am not proud of this.
To be fair, I didn’t go out looking to gather more than five dozen slaves to support myself and my family, but living in the more affluent side of Western society, I got my slaves like most everybody else: without even trying.
I live in New Jersey, United States, with my wife and two children (my daughter is 16, and my son is 13). Most of the time, we are vegans, mainly for health reasons. (I know it is an annoying thing to just tell people how you eat, but when it comes to determining your slavery footprint, it matters, especially if you consume seafood.)
We don’t buy a lot of jewelry because my daughter has a nickel allergy, but also because we are aware of how environmentally harmful gold mining can be and how tainted the diamond industry is. What jewelry we do buy are either estate pieces (already manufactured) or pieces not typically associated with forced labor (like the ring my wife bought me that was carved from a single iron meteorite).
We own a fair bit of clothing, but we try to pay attention to where they are manufactured; we stay away from textiles manufactured in Bangladesh, as well as brands that are reported to source their products from areas with lots of forced labor. This is something we’ve tried to educate our daughter on, especially, because if that kid likes to do anything, it’s shop for clothes.
We own a lot of electronics, but most of them are from Apple or Samsung, companies that receive top marks for sustainability and ethical practices. Still, stories of suicides at an Apple factory in China are hard to shake off. We don’t own a lot of athletic gear, mainly because our activities of choice are running and martial arts, which don’t require a lot of stuff.
I mention all of this because as far as Western consumers go, I’d like to think we aren’t too lavish, and don’t buy things without considering what it took to make them. And yet, when I entered all of this information into a web survey from www.slaveryfootprint.org, there was my estimated employment of slave labor: 65 people. Somehow, there were 65 people in either forced or bonded labor conditions making the things my family buys just to go about our daily lives. To say this causes a knot in my stomach is a bit of an understatement, so one can appreciate how much this weighs upon most compliance officers who strive to make sure their third-party partners and their supply chain is as free from forced labor as possible.
Modern slavery is a massive problem that exists around the world. According to the Global Slavery Index, there are currently some 45.8 million people enslaved across 167 countries. More than half of people living in slavery do so in just five countries: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. Most modern slaves are also the victims of human trafficking. Nearly one in three modern slaves is a child. Over half are female. Slavery is illegal nearly everywhere, and yet, it persists, and is used to help produce nearly 200 different commercial goods worldwide. Some industries, such as shrimp fishing, are deeply involved with using forced labor. It is a problem that is everywhere.
Over the summer, I spoke with John Clark, James Wiley, and Jessica Vincent of Rizk Compliance, a consulting firm that advises companies on dealing with forced labor within supply chains. John, James, and Jessica have backgrounds in the military and law enforcement, with experience in special operations, intelligence, border security, and nation building. They are also deeply involved in anti-human trafficking and they bring a special kind of perspective to the matter of fighting forced labor. These people are true believers in what they are doing; their work will bring them neither great fame nor fortune, but they have seen things in their previous work that they cannot unsee and, with eyes wide open, have dedicated themselves to fighting human trafficking in a way that brings about meaningful, impactful change.
When I spoke with them, they noted how pernicious the problem of human trafficking and forced labor can be. It takes place, hidden in plain sight in the United States and the United Kingdom, especially in industries that require lots of low-paying labor. By way of example, they noted that more than 150 displaced civilians enter the U.K. labor market each day, mainly by way of Calais, and it’s a problem that simply has no easy solution. Part of it is simply better security, but perhaps the larger part of it is addressing the conditions that drive those people to seek work in the United Kingdom in the first place.
John, James, and Jessica have spent a lot of time in the developing world, helping manufacturers review the operations where they source inventory or initially fabricate goods. And that is where they do some of their most interesting work. It is one thing to point out bad conditions at a workplace and advise a client to take their business elsewhere, they note, but that can actually make the core problem worse. In some areas, for example, where a mine is employing forced labor, as bad as that mine may be, it might actually be the best option for its workers to escape even worse conditions in areas riven with civil warfare or extreme lawlessness. This does not excuse the forced labor, but it does provide the companies doing business with this hypothetical mine to help the mine address its bad behavior and address the issue at its root. This needs companies willing to put in some extra time and effort to actually fixing the problem of slavery and human trafficking, rather than moving to avoid it altogether. It is a more difficult, but more meaningful solution.
In the context of the U.K.’s Modern Slavery Act, approaches like this matter. As companies conduct deeper compliance efforts to identify places in their supply chain that might employ forced labor, what to do when that forced labor is detected is key. So far, the Modern Slavery Act doesn’t require companies to try to eradicate slavery; just to not benefit from it. And while that’s laudable … as long as companies can simply turn the other way, forced labor will still seep into supply chains, even of those companies that genuinely do not wish to make use of it. After all, a perfectly clean supply chain is easier said than done. Take it from the fellow with 65 slaves working for his family.
Source: Compliance Week