The right to know if global companies are profiting off human rights abuses in their supply chains

Modern day slavery, sex trafficking, and forced child labor aren’t just festering in the shadows in far-flung locales. These assaults on basic human rights are a growing scourge in the global marketplace, fueled in part by multinational companies with respectable lines of business that profit off them. In fact, the International Labor Organization estimates that 21 million people are being subjected to forced labor around the world. As a recent report by the Department of State explains:

“Human trafficking has no boundaries and respects no laws. It exists in formal and informal labor markets of both lawful and illicit industries, affecting skilled and unskilled workers from a spectrum of educational backgrounds. Victims include adults and children, foreign nationals and citizens, those who travel far—whether through legal or illegal channels—only to be subjected to exploitation, and those who have been exploited without ever leaving their hometowns.

The fluid nature of the crime means traffickers can target vulnerable workers anywhere to fill labor shortages everywhere along a supply chain. In the electronics sector, for example, human trafficking may exist in the extractive stages (mining for raw material), in the component manufacturing stage (where separate pieces are produced or combined), and in the production stage (where a good is assembled and packaged in a factory).

Risks are present in the service sector, as well as in the production of goods. The sheets in a hotel may be made with cotton harvested by forced labor, the housekeeper cleaning the room may be exploited in labor trafficking, and the room itself may be used as a temporary brothel by sex traffickers. The international community must both understand the supply chains of the products used to provide a service (hotel sheets, airplane parts, medical equipment) and also examine the risks to those workers who provide them (house cleaners, caregivers, dishwashers).”

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Children working in a gold mine in Mali. Credit: Human Rights Watch

Whether it’s due to willful ignorance or direct exploitation, corporate guilt in these human rights abuses should be brought to light and held accountable. Investors and consumers also have a right to know if the businesses they’re investing in or products they’re buying were built with slave labor.

One approach is to require multinational companies to disclose what measures they’re taking to eliminate human trafficking and other criminal practices by their suppliers. Silence, of course, would arouse suspicion of complicity.

Legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives reflects that goal. Specifically, it would compel major companies with more than $100 million in global receipts to report to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) their efforts to stop modern day slavery. Though the proposal would be a partial solution, it would nonetheless take a significant step forward in cleaning up worldwide supply chains and manufacturing systems. Similar proposals are moving forward in Europe as well. By requiring greater transparency, the expectation is that such policies would give consumers, investors, and other stakeholders greater leverage to encourage, if not compel, the corporate sector to behave more ethically and responsibly.

Technology could be deployed to take even more steps beyond disclosure to the SEC and investors. As Daniel Goleman described in this TED talk, the entire supply chain history of a product—how it was made by whom where, through what manufacturing processes—could be made available via a simple barcode or other electronic tagging. The information would then allow consumers to more accurately weigh the ethical implications of their purchases at the time of the sale.

For more information, see “U.S. Representatives Propose Supply Chain Law Following Slavery Report,” Supply Chain 24/7 (2015); “Congress can fight human trafficking and forced labor,” New York University Center for Business and Human Rights (2015); “Trafficking in Persons Report 2015,” Department of State (2015).