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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.

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This legislation is modeled on a 2010 California law that encourages retailers and manufacturers in the state to keep slavery and human trafficking out of their supply chains. When it takes effect in 2012, large companies will have to post their supplier policies on their websites, including any evaluations, audits, or trainings to prevent forced labor.

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Several state trade groups opposed the bill. The California Chamber of Commerce said the law takes "a punitive and heavy-handed approach to companies,” burdening them with new costs and regulations. The US Chamber of Commerce has not yet taken a public stance on the federal bill.

The face of modern-day slavery

During the past several decades, American corporations have increasingly turned to overseas suppliers for raw materials and manufactured goods. When their search for cheap products leads these companies to nations with limited worker protections, they risk funding so-called modern-day slavery – work obtained through force, fraud, or coercion.

Millions of children, women, and men around the world are forced into their jobs. Against their will, they produce coffee in Kenya, electronics in China, rubber in Burma – nearly 130 goods in 70 countries, according to a 2010 US Department of Labor report.

Public awareness of modern-day slavery and human trafficking has grown in recent years. Partly in response, some major US companies have started to voluntarily monitor their suppliers’ labor practices and to make those practices public.

For example, Hewlett-Packard, the technology giant, has audited 681 of its 1,200-some production supply sites, and posted details from the inspections to its website.

The practice makes good business sense, says Karen Stauss, program director at the nonprofit group Free The Slaves. Companies prevent embarrassing labor violations while acting as good corporate citizens – which they can advertise to their customers.

Despite these benefits, says Ms. Stauss, many corporations still need prodding.

“I don’t think there’s any business in America that wants to have slavery in their supply chain,” she says. “They just haven’t taken the effort to root it out.”

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