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In Congress, a bid to make US firms take steps against modern-day slavery

A new bill in Congress would require large companies to reveal any efforts to ensure that child labor, forced labor, and other forms of modern-day slavery did not contribute to their products.

By Patrick WallContributor / August 5, 2011

A poster released by Airline Ambassadors International is designed to bring awareness to the issue of human trafficking. The organization has joined with several non-profits, government groups, and corporations to increase attention as well as providing trainings for airline and hospitality personnel to detect abductions at airports and hotels.

Courtesy of Airline Ambassadors International

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New York

Do schoolchildren in Uzbekistan or forced laborers in China pick the cotton that ends up in an American T-shirt?

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“It’s virtually impossible to get dressed, drive to work, talk on the phone, or eat a meal without touching products tainted by forced labor,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York, at a news conference Wednesday.

Representative Maloney introduced a bill this week that would require large US companies to disclose their efforts to ensure that no young children, adult slaves, or human trafficking victims are part of their supply chains. While the rule would not compel companies to take such precautions, it could give those that do a competitive edge.

Consumers "might want to buy a shirt that’s not made with slave labor,” said Maloney. “And they’ll be able to do it with this reporting system.”

The bill faces an uphill battle to become a law, notes Steven Cohen, professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York.

It takes on a practice – modern-day slavery – that is “ethically repugnant,” he says, "but I don’t think the Republican-controlled House is going to pass any sort of law regulating corporate behavior at this point."

The bill would require any company earning more than $100 million worldwide to document its efforts in two places: its annual Securities and Exchange Commissions (SEC) filing, and the company's website. These disclosures would detail the companies’ policies to prevent illegal labor and their methods for certifying that suppliers abide by them.

Supporters say this legislation is only the first step in purging forced labor and human trafficking from the supply chain. Tougher laws, say advocates, must wait until the economy improves and – they hope – resistance to business regulation subsides.

Still, the bill has the potential to spur companies into action by subjecting their supplier standards to public scrutiny, says E. Benjamin Skinner, author of the book, "A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery."

“The Congresswoman was very intelligent about the way she’s put this together,” says Mr. Skinner. “[The disclosure] has to be in an SEC filing. If you lie as a CEO in an SEC filing, you go to jail.”

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