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How Many Slaves Work For You?

“How many slaves work for you?”

Though a provocative and albeit somewhat perplexing question, that’s how keynote speaker Justin Dillon, CEO and founder of Made in a Free World, opened the Ethical Sourcing Forum (ESF) in New York City last week. Made in a Free World is a network of businesses and individuals working toward eliminating slave and forced labor from supply chains.

His aim was to drive home the point that more of the items we consume are made from slave or forced labor than we might believe.

“Forced labor and child labor survive today because those who enable it are smart, incredibly fast and profoundly innovative,” Dillon said. “In order to eradicate its existence, as Corporate Responsibility practitioners, we need to be smarter, we need to be faster, we need to be more innovative.”

Labor is considered forced when the individual is not free to leave, is unpaid or paid very little, or works excessively long or unusual hours. Most workers taken for forced labor can’t free themselves because of the fees business owners tell them they owe. They are “charged” for the airfare to get them to the country they are toiling in, plus recruitment fees, commissions, kickbacks and bribes — and the fees can be as much as one year salary. Some workers are lured under the pretense of visas and better jobs with good pay, only to have their passports held and at times go unpaid. Some workers are simply taken against their will.

Today, over 29 million people live under these conditions.

Dillon launched Slavery Footprint in 2011, a website designed to determine how many slaves work for each individual. Visitors to the site can answer survey questions about the items they consume in their daily lives and yield an answer to how many slaves they have indirectly and unintentionally employed.

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Young girls in remote parts of India are using ancient tools to chip away at the rocks in mines that hold the sparkles present in make-up. The tantalum that goes into electronics has been called a conflict mineral as its production is known for involving child and forced labor. And the individuals making the goods we consume are being bought, sold and trafficked to do so.

The welcome page on Slavery Footprint reads: “That smartphone. That T-shirt, computer, cup of coffee…That’s stuff we buy, and that’s stuff that comes from slaves.”

In a later ESF breakout lab organized to examine significant changes to corporate social responsibility regulations, Paul O. Hirose, senior counsel for Perkins Coie, LLP, said, “There’s a lot that we unknowingly use that was made by forced labor,” adding that human trafficking is a $38 billion criminal industry.

One regulation change to take note of, according to Hirose, is that companies will no longer be able to simply report that their use of conflict minerals is “undeterminable” and still be considered compliant.

A company that still can’t determine whether a product contains conflict minerals after exercising due diligence will still be required to submit a Conflict Minerals Report detailing its efforts to mitigate the risk that conflict minerals benefited armed groups, examine facilities used to process the conflict minerals and efforts to determine the mine or location of origin with the greatest possible specificity. The new rule take effect as of next year.

Hirose also highlighted the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2014, a bill introduced to Congress last June, which stipulates that: (1) legislation is necessary to provide consumers information on products that are free of child labor, forced labor, slavery, and human trafficking; and (2) businesses and consumers, by means of publicly available disclosures, can avoid inadvertently promoting or sanctioning these crimes through production and purchase of goods and products that have been tainted in the supply chains.

The bill requires that companies file mandatory annual reports disclosing whether they have taken any measures during the year to identify and address conditions of forced labor, slavery, human trafficking and the worst forms of child labor within their supply chains. And the disclosures would have to be made available on the company’s website.

According to John Gabriel, corporate manager of supply chain social responsibility at IBM, “Companies have focused on supply chain social responsibility focusing on direct suppliers. Indirect purchases may not be receiving the same level of attention within a company, or are decentralized across regions or countries.” But companies need to be just as vigilant with both, as forced labor and human trafficking is prevalent in extended supply chains, he said.

IBM has engaged its services and general procurement supply chain and the segment has grown from 40-67 percent of spend, Gabriel noted.

“Know who is doing your indirect purchasing and what they are buying. Where are they buying it? Do you deploy your supply chain code of conduct to the indirect supply chain? Often we find that is not the case,” Gabriel said. “Forced labor noncompliance centers on lack of policies, procedures and awareness of the human trafficking issue.”