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.

Courtesy of Airline Ambassadors International
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.

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

“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.”

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.

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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