We Can Afford to Stop Slave Labor. We Must Afford To.

Remarks by Mark P. Lagon, Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, from a conference earlier this year entitled “Engaging Business: Addressing Forced Labor”:

Human trafficking is a dehumanizing crime which turns people into mere commodities. Globalization fuels not only sex trafficking but also slave labor. Goods enter the global market place while consumers have little or no knowledge of the supply chains and work conditions that resulted in their production. This is problematic for both the consumer and businesses which are increasingly faced with the challenge of ensuring that complex supply chains are untainted by forced labor. But American businesses are steadily moving to address this challenge in their quest to be socially responsible corporate citizens.

This Fall the Gap withdrew a line of embroidered blouses and ordered an internal investigation after news reports revealed apparent child labor in a Delhi sweatshop. One child, Jivaj, from West Bengal described his experience this way, “Our hours are hard and violence is used against us if we don’t work hard enough. This is a big order for abroad, they keep telling us that… I was so tired I felt sick.”

Gap has publicly reiterated their unequivocal opposition to child labor. In a public private partnership, Gap is now partnering with the Global March Against Child Labor to establish an independent monitoring system for future production of its products, and to examine industry-wide solutions to child labor issues. While Gap’s response was swift, the frenzied media attention presents a nightmare scenario for even the best public relations specialist. But more importantly it gives us a glimpse of a nightmare scenario of a different sort—that of child and forced labor.

As more labor is outsourced to developing country markets, there is a greater likelihood that human rights violations will occur with corporate headquarters possessing little to no knowledge before it is too late. Multiple layers of contractors and subcontractors in a production chain present major challenges for accountability. Gap for example reportedly has 90 people located around the world whose job is to ensure compliance with their Code of Vendor Conduct.

The reality, which many of you know well, is that most major companies—whether they are part of the apparel industry or food production or other sectors—could find themselves in Gap’s shoes overnight. Is this the natural product of globalization? Is it the fruit of capitalism run amok? I think not. Many of you have dedicated your time and professional energy to advancing the field of corporate social responsibility—a field which seeks to take steps to better the lives of employees and the communities where your companies operate. You recognize what our nation’s founders recognized—namely that liberty, and I would argue capitalism, must be tempered by virtue and with it the common pursuit of human dignity. You acknowledge that any challenge to public image or profitability associated with securing supply chains and guaranteeing the absence of forced labor in production is minimal when compared to what is at stake legally and ethically if such ends are not pursued.

Corporate social responsibility often involves doing what’s right beyond what’s required by the letter of the law. … We’re talking about standing together morally and developing strategies practically to stop slave labor in the dark shadows of the world economy. We can afford to. We must afford to.

Conference hosted by The Coca-Cola Company. Sponsored by the U.S. Council for International Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the International Organization of Employers in Cooperation with the International Labor Organizations on February 19, 2008.

Read the whole speech at the U.S. Department of State site.

This speech was sent to me by another slavery writer, Benjamin Skinner, who has a new book out called A Crime So Monstrous about the ease with which humans are trafficked around the world.

I’m posting this because it’s interesting. On the one hand it is a meaningful and articulate show of concern. On the other hand, I’m a huge non-believer in corporate responsibility. It’s great if they make efforts, but fixing the world is not their job. As Robert Reich describes very eloquently in his new book, Supercapitalism, and I have articulated less well elsewhere, corporations are like viruses. They’re money-making machines. That’s all they know how to do, and all we should expect from them. It’s the job of citizens and governments to create democracy, diminish inequality, protect labor and human rights, and eliminate slavery.

Finally, it’s also very interesting that the Coca Cola company had this guy come speak to them, given their problems with murdered trade unionists in Colombia. But hey…

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One response to “We Can Afford to Stop Slave Labor. We Must Afford To.

  1. Pingback: Public Relations Nightmares » Blog Archive » We Can Afford to Stop Slave Labor. We Must Afford To.

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