January: National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month

I know I've let the whole month slip by, but the new year brought a lot more changes and stress than I anticipated.  I've been taking it day by day, trying to find motivation to improve myself, my writing, and my life.  I hope to stay accountable to my goals by sharing my progress and thoughts here.

January was declared National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.  The majority of Americans would agree that slavery is wrong and are glad it has been outlawed, but that same majority may not know how prevalent forced labor and human trafficking are in modern times.

Photo credit: Powerhouse Museum Collection

It is estimated that between 12 and 27 million people globally are victims of human trafficking or forced labor.  It is hard to pin down since most of these cases go unreported.  This includes not only manufacturing, but also labor in nail salons, restaurants, agriculture, and domestic servitude.  Many of those workers are forced into sexual exploitation.  Even more unnerving is that half of forced labor victims are children.

Slavery doesn't just mean unpaid workers that are tied up or chained down, physically unable to escape under pain of death, as was taught in history classes.  Sometimes forced laborers get paid, but not paid nearly enough.  They feel trapped due to threats on their families and have been defrauded by labor brokers promising a better life.

Labor brokers facilitate the connection between workers and the industry.  These operations are often very informal and brokers can charge exorbitant recruitment or placement fees, misrepresent terms, withhold important documents, or even give out fake licenses to a vulnerable and unwitting migrant worker.

In September 2012, the US Department of Labor reported that 134 goods from 74 countries were produced with a significant incidence of forced labor, child labor, or both.  That is up from 122 goods in 58 countries reported in 2009.  Forgive my concern when vague company policy and sketchy counterfeit goods make me wonder if an 8 year old's legs were broken so she couldn't play outside and could instead finish the garment.

From fires in Bangladesh apparel factories to labor on cotton fields and cocoa fields in Uzbekistan and West Africa to tomato and citrus fields in Florida, to Burmese migrants in the seafood industry in Thailand, it is clear that forced labor is a global issue.  But what can be done to stop it?

Change can happen by consistently taking small steps.

Next time you go shopping, keep an eye out for fair trade labels or at least try to avoid brands that have been known to break the rules.  As much as I love a low price point, Forever 21 has broken labor laws and skirted intellectual property rules over and over.  They keep getting away with it because people keep shopping there.  Free2work has a breakdown of the supply chain and eco-conscious decisions of other popular brands here. They even have a mobile app (for Android and iPhone) to assist you in making better choices while you're on the go.

Petitioning for more transparency in the supply chain is another way to make change.  ChainStoreReaction allows you to send messages to different companies inquiring about their supply chain policies and the responses get posted.  California has passed laws requiring a public display of the commitment to evaluate and address risks of human trafficking and slavery, that audits are performed to evaluate compliance with standards, certification by suppliers that materials used comply with slavery and human trafficking laws in the country or countries in which they do business, that they maintain internal accountability standards and procedures for employees or contractors that fail to meet standards, and that they train employees on human trafficking.  While the system isn't perfect, it is a step in the right direction.  One of my favorite brands, BCBGMaxAzria follows this.  

If you see something, say something.  It may be difficult to tell but if you suspect forced labor or child labor at a neighborhood restaurant, nail salon, or wherever - report the incident to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) 888 - 539 - 2373.  They can look into the incident and work with law enforcement to sort out the problem.

Most importantly - remain informed.  I've shared some information here but there is a lot more out there - check out the International Labor Rights Forum, Humanity United,  or any of the links I've cited above.