At least 21 million people globally toil in forced labor, a problem that stems from a “global governance crisis” in which corporations’ supply chains have gotten so complex and diffuse that current oversight mechanisms are no longer effective, according to a panel of Human Trafficking experts on Capitol Hill. The lack of corporate or governmental oversight of supply chains, especially subcontractors, is a major problem allowing trafficking for forced labor to grow on a global scale.

Former U.S. ambassador and current Georgetown University Professor Mark P. Lagon moderated the July 26 panel, “Business Transparency to Address Human Trafficking.” The panel was convened in anticipation of a House bill on human trafficking, which would require U.S. companies to make information on their supply chains available to the public and to continually investigate sourcing. Advocates of the approach say it gives more power to consumers by enabling them to choose whether to purchase ethically-sourced products and also puts more pressure on companies to ensure that labor laws are enforced throughout their supply chains.

Cathy Feingold, AFL-CIO International Department director, pointed out that improved oversight laws would help prevent companies from doing what many Western retail giants did after the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last April—that is, deny responsibility on the basis that they were only linked to the factory through a web of subcontractors, even though their products were made there.

Flor Molina, a trafficking survivor and now an advocate for other survivors in the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) Survivor Advisory Caucus, shared her harrowing story of coming to Los Angeles from Mexico as a trafficked worker, underlining the urgency of acting to end human trafficking and also the inadequacies of current oversight mechanisms. Molina’s trafficker, who forced her to work 17-18 hour days sewing dresses, withheld her wages and her passport, and forbade her from visiting a doctor, avoided jail time by paying a $75,000 fine. Now, Molina is an advocate for other trafficking survivors, and she believes greater private-sector accountability as well as government oversight will help prevent others from experiencing what she did.

Companies are likely to become more transparent with their sourcing, said Karen Stauss, director of programs at Free the Slaves, noting that several multinationals are gaining a greater ability to see deep into their supply chains, and these companies will pressure others to implement similar mechanisms. Investors are also increasingly seeing the “reputational and occupational” risk of doing business with companies connected with trafficking operations, said Bennett Freeman, senior vice president of Sustainability Research and Policy at Calvert Investments, and more investors are showing interest in socially responsible indexes and mutual funds. He said that in-depth research of product-sourcing, which his firm does, will help weed out companies that are the “systemic bad actors.”

Governments, however, also need to do more to combat human trafficking, said Louis Alexander of the Pan American Development Foundation. In Central America, one of the world’s hubs of trafficking, four countries have formed a coalition to combat the crisis and Alexander hopes that more multilateral state efforts like this one will emerge.

Although the panelists’ views differed on the role of governments in combatting human trafficking, panelists all agreed on a clear agenda of holding companies more accountable for keeping track of their supply chains and providing more public information on product-sourcing.

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the News from The Solidarity Center