Special Report: The Truth About Human Trafficking in the Supply Chain

Industry Explores Options to Rid Supply Chains of Forced Labor

There are many myths involved in human trafficking, particularly as it pertains to corporate supply chains, government and industry officials are increasingly finding. In a recent presentation to the Exporters Competitive Maritime Council in Houston, experts presented their findings around this troubling topic.

While U.S. and international legislations are ramping up to deal with the process, and companies make anti-trafficking measures part of its social responsibility, an obvious takeaway is there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Through awareness and due diligence, industries are taking steps to ferret out bad actors and to ensure their supply chains are safe and responsible, according to several people familiar with the issue.

Myths About Human Trafficking

Simply put, trafficking is the exploitation of men, women and children for forced labor or forced sex, by a third party for their own profit our gain. Beyond that textbook definition, there are many myths and misperceptions about the issue.

One anti-trafficking advocate appropriately stated people have value, no matter who they are or what they’ve done, and no matter from where they come or what’s been done to them.

A main myth is that trafficking happens somewhere else, whether other industries, other countries or, from the shipping perspective, other companies’ supply chains.

The advocate, however, estimated that global trafficking is generating hundreds of billions of dollars in profit for those engaged in such acts. The International Labor Organization reported that more human trafficking occurs today than in the times of the transatlantic slave trade; some 20 million people are enslaved worldwide with an additional 15 million people in forced marriages.

Public attention is usually drawn most towards sex trafficking of children, and then women, but that ignores the enormous amount of world forced labor.

Industry representatives point to a case ultimately prosecuted in 2012, in which a turkey processor in Iowa enslaved a group of mentally disabled men for decades to gut turkeys for US$5 a week. Upon being rescued, many men died and all were scarred and debilitated for the rest of their lives (the New York Times provided an in-depth report and a documentary on the case.

Another myth is that people mistakenly equate trafficking to immigration. It can be either immigrants or citizens whether in the U.S. or other countries. An immigrant could pay to be smuggled into a country illegally, only to fall into a trafficking ring.

Traffickers can be family or persons known to the victim or complete strangers; and can be manifested in all types of businesses, from food service, processing, hotel industry, to sweat shots and even questionable prison labor schemes.

It’s a crime of opportunity, which can develop quickly and without a massive effort to exploit vulnerable.

Industry Response

For governments and industries, the interest in combating trafficking has grown dramatically. Real solutions, however, prove illusive.

The problem with supply chains is, as proactive as a company may be in auditing their vendors and supply chain partners, there are so many links that complete visibility is nigh impossible; even robust tools can peer only so far down the supply chain.

The issue draws strong interest from governments to legislate solutions, but without properly researching the issue, many attempt to be one-size-fits-all approaches. They usually focus on compliance, and countries and companies will simply cut off whole regions.

Such legislation usually equates to a prohibition on markets directly or indirectly sourced where trafficking is believed to occur. That can usually lead to economic issues in that market, and workers migrating and the trafficking simply moving to other markets or regions with them. Meanwhile companies are forced to rebuild their supply chains – at great expense and complexity – and the potential for trafficking may move with them.

One source expects that legislation will eventually place civil liability associated with what happens in a company’s supply chain.

With that in mind, a number of companies are building supply chain management tools based on social and labor issues.

Truckers Against Trafficking

Despite the complexities, some companies and organizations are making strides in formalizing industry approaches to human trafficking.

One of the most prominent cases of the rubber literally meeting the road is the organization Truckers Against Trafficking in the U.S. The organization’s mission is to educate, equip, empower and mobilize members of the trucking industry. It has partnered with law enforcement and government agencies.

Organizations that partner with TAT mandate that all carriers must be go through the organization’s training program.

Nearly 1 million people are registered as “TAT trained.” The training has raised thousands of calls into a national trafficking hotline with nearly 1,000 cases generated and about 1,300 victims identified, according to the organization’s website.

TAT is reportedly working with some other companies to support the creation of similar programs tailored to the local markets. Further, the trucking non-profit has developed specific programs for the oil and gas and petrochemical industries.

Working Towards a Solution

For companies intent on combating human trafficking, awareness is a start, industry advocates said. Working within the justice system and law enforcement discerns how to look for trafficking, on a case-based effort. The approach won’t be perfect but to identify any cases makes a difference. According to a 2019 Northeastern University study, law enforcement only identifies 2.5 percent to 6 percent of trafficking victims.

Sources pointed out a number of thoughts and actions companies may employ:
  • Perhaps the biggest, most powerful took is the ability to audit supply chains to ensure no forced labor in vendors’ facilities. In-person visits, and announced and unannounced audits are complicated, but effective. Auditing files, monitoring activities and face-to-face meetings increase visibility.
  • Be aware of any points of ingress or egress – airports, ports, borders.
  • When working through labor brokers to source international labor, employers should pay, along with the broker fees, the costs for visas and other processes to ensure the labor being attained is not coerced.
  • Legislation such as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, require companies to address their efforts to address forced labor and human trafficking.
“What is your company doing? If you don’t do anything, you’re forced to write that down,” one source saying, adding that the shame factor can be effective.
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