Helping companies stand up to worker exploitation

'Help Wanted' gives companies, unions, NGOs, and governments tools for ending exploitation of workers.

Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom/File
A Cambodian worker sews at a factory in Sihanouk province, some 140 miles southwest of Phnom Penh. A new initiative from the group Verité seeks to get governments, unions, labor brokers, and companies working together to improve working conditions.

Most of us would like to make sure that the products we buy – anything from food to clothing – weren't made with exploitative or forced labor. But even savvy shoppers find they simply can't avoid, with any certainty, supporting worker exploitation because supply chains are so complicated and nontransparent.

A new initiative called Help Wanted from Verité, an organization that monitors and advocates for improved working conditions globally, seeks to close the gap between good intentions and real-world capacity.

Help Wanted is the culmination of Verité's years of work on human trafficking mixed with an effort to specifically engage the disparate groups involved in a supply chain, including companies, labor brokers, suppliers to brands, government officials, unions, and NGOs, to get their perspective of the problem and potential solutions to address it.

One of the key pieces of Help Wanted is a toolkit that has resources for every one of those players. In addition to brands, suppliers, and governments, the toolkit has a section each for advocates, investors, auditors, and multi-stakeholders.

Help Wanted also includes a Fair Hiring Framework, an overview of the problem of human trafficking and Verité's ideas for solutions; a policy brief for governments, companies, and NGOs; and research reports showing the link between human trafficking and labor brokers around the world, including in the United States.

Labor recruiters, or brokers, are perhaps the single most important factor in perpetuating the existence of human trafficking in supply chains, said Shawn MacDonald, senior advisor at Verité, since that’s where the problem first starts. A lot of workers are forcibly recruited or misled about what they are getting into. Improving factory conditions therefore does not change the fact that these workers might not have wanted or intended to be there in the first place.

Whereas employers used to pay for their own human resource function, it’s now the workers who pay to be hired – often into conditions that are very different from what they were first promised. The recruitment process is also the part of the problem most overlooked by brands, even those that are already working to improve their corporate responsibility.

"If you're ignoring the problems that are incurred just through recruiting and hiring people, then you're missing the forest for the trees," said MacDonald. "By encouraging brands to look at how workers are recruited and hired, they'll then have much more effective compliance programs. But I think they're going to need some encouragement to see that as a new shift for them to embrace."

Which is where the toolkit comes in. It provides that encouragement and outlines clear steps forward, and also has resources for activists who want to do a little encouraging of their own.

Overcoming Corruption

Corrupt or inefficient governments shouldn't be excused from cleanup efforts. Rather that's a reason for companies to take even more responsibility, to raise these issues with host governments, rather than pretend they don't exist.

"Companies have to stop being afraid of naming the problem, and say to the host government that it is a problem for them, and they want more action around it," said MacDonald. "They have to stand up and say they care about this problem and that they want the government to perform better."

He said work needs to be done to move past governments thinking that a lawless environment is what companies want.

"Instead of [companies] having to spend all this money on their corporate responsibility programs and audits and all this, if the government enforces the laws, everybody would be better off," he said.

Verité's Help Wanted initiative also provides support to individual stakeholder groups. MacDonald said a number of companies have already expressed interest in piloting the tools and in attending trainings and workshops that the organization will be holding, with one coming up this summer in China.

"That's the most important thing because if people actually come to these workshops and these trainings, then they'll be really able to interact with the material and learn more about how they can implement it," he said, adding that companies aren’t the only target audience – Verité works with NGOs and investors, too. The ultimate goal is to educate all players about these issues.

As Verité CEO Dan Viederman said in a press release, "The Help Wanted Toolkit basically means that no company can say they are in the dark about how to rid their supply chains of forced labor or slavery, or work around abuses by labor brokers."

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