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Promising Practices and Public Private Partnerships: The Path Forward To Combat Human Trafficking

Mark P. Lagon, Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Remarks at the Promising Practices and Public Private Partnerships Symposium
Washington, DC
March 25, 2008

As Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I’d like to thank you for coming to today’s symposium on Promising Practices and Public Private Partnerships in the fight against modern day slavery. I know you’ve had a busy morning, filled with compelling speakers, and my hope is that the break-out sessions that will commence later this afternoon will provide you with the opportunity to look toward the critical stage of implementing that which you’ve heard discussed thus far.

I am delighted to be able to join you for a bit this afternoon after having been sequestered away in my office reading through countless country narratives for my office’s flagship publication, the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which ranks countries around the globe into tiers for their efforts implement the three “P” approach for the elimination of human trafficking: Prosecution, Protection and Prevention.

This Congressionally mandated report is due to be released in June. It is our prime tool for diplomatic engagement and international awareness needed to achieve prevention. The report was included in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act—legislation which created the office I direct. That Act also institutionalized a cabinet-level taskforce, chaired by Secretary of State Rice, to improve coordination and implementation of our anti-trafficking efforts. Combating modern day slavery is unquestionably a high priority for the United States Government.

My office has grown from a staff of six in 2001, including I should note Amy O’Neill Richard—a real pioneer of this movement—to a staff today nearly thirty. Included in that number are several staff members whose portfolios would be of significant interest to many of you. Amy focuses on combating child sex tourism which includes partnering with many in the tourism and hospitality industry to raise awareness and elicit pledges of active support. She also works tirelessly to elevate public private partnerships and corporate social responsibility, following the leadership of Secretary Rice, who aptly noted that, “The solutions to the challenges of the 21st century are not going to be met by government alone. They come from all sectors of American society working together.” Our office believes that success in confronting exploitation, abuse and coercion endemic in human trafficking will be found in our ability to work toward that end in partnership with substantial players outside of government.

Recently too, I recruited a former U.S. ambassador, Steve Steiner, to join our team focusing specifically on labor slavery and the mechanics of supply chains. We also have a dedicated Outreach Team which collaborates daily with faith-based and philanthropic communities. I mention these various components of our office as they may not be generally well-known, but they are a testament to institutionalizing at the working level our will to look outside of government—including to the corporate sphere—to further abolitionist efforts.

The field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has expanded over the last several decades with over 3,000 corporations having signed the UN Global Compact committing themselves to its ten universal principles focused on human rights, labor, the environment, and anti-corruption. Non-governmental organizations with a mission of promoting CSR have been created. College and universities have added courses on CSR, and some have even launched Centers for Corporate Citizenship. Religious organizations have promoted faith-based investing. Websites and online resource guides have been established to enable the public to research corporate philanthropic donations or to view information on companies’ CSR activities. Symposiums, workshops, and conferences on CSR have promoted consultancy services and explored the latest trends in CSR. Many of you here are exemplars in your field and pioneers in expanding the borders of the CSR world. You have exhibited leadership and forward-thinking in the arena of combating human trafficking.

Just last week my office hosted a 2-day symposium which brought together leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of whom we fund, to explore promising practices in the realm of victim aftercare. We have come to realize that NGOs, faith-based groups and now some businesses are advancing the anti-trafficking cause, but the lessons they have learned along the way are not well known within the broader abolitionist community. This reality was in part the impetus for today’s gathering.

For example, we sought to invite participants from the same fields such that you could inform each other’s work. It is our hope that if there is someone from the travel and tourism industry who has signed the Code of Conduct that they would be able to collaborate with colleagues from the same industry and dialogue about how they got to that point, what sorts of concerns or questions they had along the way and how they advanced the issue within their corporation. We recognize that you can speak to one another from within the context of your shared fields with far greater credibility than any government official can.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it is important to understand the scope and the nature of the challenge we face—as this will ultimately be what informs our collective work. Human trafficking is a dehumanizing crime which turns people into mere commodities. While we recognize the merits of globalization, there is a dark side that fuels not only sex trafficking but also slave labor. Trafficking rings ensnare and exploit victims in prostitution, sweatshop labor, and domestic servitude, subjecting them to violence, rape, battery and cruelty. Individuals who sought to make a better life for themselves are exploited by traffickers who view them as highly profitable, low risk, expendable commodities.

Large and small companies have started to pay attention to the issue of human trafficking, specifically as it relates to labor practices. Goods enter the global market place while consumers have little or no knowledge of the supply chains and work conditions that resulted in their production. This is problematic for both the consumer and businesses which are increasingly faced with the challenge of ensuring that complex supply chains are untainted by forced labor.

A recent example highlights the difficulty: Last fall, Gap withdrew a line of embroidered blouses and ordered an internal investigation after media reports revealed apparent child labor abuses in a Delhi sweatshop. One child, Jivaj, from West Bengal described his experience: “Our hours are hard and violence is used against us if we don’t work hard enough. This is a big order for abroad, they keep telling us that…I was so tired I felt sick.”

Gap has publicly pledged opposition to such child labor practices and now reports a partnership with the Global March Against Child Labor to establish an independent monitoring system for future production of its products, and to examine industry-wide solutions to child labor issues. It is our hope that this reflects a trend whereby more American businesses will actively move to address human rights challenges in a proactive way in their quest to be socially responsible corporate citizens. But those of you who are gathered here today don’t need convincing that clean supply chains must be a priority for any business. We are looking beyond this important effort to deeper partnerships in the name abolishing contemporary slavery.

Several weeks ago I returned from a 2 week trip to three regions of Africa. In Mombasa, Kenya and Cape Town, South Africa I met with the hotel and tourism industry leaders about expanding efforts to reduce the presence of sex tourists. With the World Cup on the horizon, South Africa is working to develop comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation, and it’s tourism community is rapidly building anti-sex tourism initiatives into Cape Town’s planning and visitor strategy for 2010, when sex tourism is expected to boom. I met with a compelling woman who is working to ensuring that her home city is free of child sex tourism. Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, the chief executive officer of Cape Town Tourism, with over 2,300 tourism and related industry members, has promised to sign a code of conduct, establish ethical policies, raise awareness among her members and give all visitors information about sex tourism. She captured the nature of the challenge and how they plan to confront it when she said, “Unconfirmed reports say that Cape Town rates among the top 10 sex tourism destinations. Here you can order anything from an uncut diamond, fresh sushi and a 10 year old boy delivered to your door in less than 20 minutes…Our message must be very clear. Cape Town welcomes the world to our beautiful destination, but visitors who engage in sexual exploitation of women and children are not welcome.”

The efforts of Ms. Du Toit-Helmbold are indicative of a trend I have noted in my travels around the world. Whether in human resources or extractive sectors or high technology industries, the commitment to CSR in the area of human trafficking ultimately rests with individual champions who steer his or her company in this direction—ranging from CEOs to middle-level management to line officers personally investing themselves.

Allow me to share with you a few more examples of what I mean. A top corporate manager at Hewlett-Packard talked about doing an investigation in Southeast Asia of a factory HP was about to use. Against the wishes of the factory’s owners, their auditors insisted on seeing residential facilities on factory grounds where workers were housed. They found men and women whose documents were withheld (a common indicator of human trafficking). The workers were enduring forced overtime work and no more than 15 minute breaks per day (which was not enough time to get to the commissary and back). When the audit team informed the company that the site did not comply with the company’s zero tolerance rules against forced labor, they realized they were helping nix a contract worth many millions. But the company took their recommendation to cancel the contract until conditions were changed.

Another example is Columbia Gem House which became the first jewelry industry company committed to fair trade practices including refusing to employ child or slave labor, and prohibiting business practices such as demanding workers work grueling hours for grossly low pay. In poor, isolated regions where mining is a mainstay, people are vulnerable to labor schemes that promise good wages or education, but deliver abuse instead. To address this problem in the broadest way, Columbia Gem House, under the leadership of their President Eric Braunwart, made extensive human capital investments around the mines where gems are born—starting a school for children vulnerable to exploitative labor schemes, providing housing for teachers, financing a hospital, drilling wells, and committing to a 30% local ownership plan. Some of these investments, like the school, were explicitly trafficking prevention measures. Others, which sought to strengthen the community and generate sustainable economic development, created an atmosphere whereby families were less susceptible to “too good to be true” schemes by prospective traffickers. Not only were Columbia Gem Houses’ activities good for the communities where they were operating, they were good for the company as well which experienced a 5-15% increase in the wholesale value of the gems. The investments allowed Columbia to increase production by about ten times at an estimated 10-20% increased cost.

This example proves that corporate engagement in one of the U.S. Government’s top human rights priorities can benefit the corporate bottom line. It’s an excellent example of how human trafficking is an issue gradually making its way onto the menu of issues addressed by corporate social responsibility programs.

Eric Braunwart created an example of corporate engagement to end human trafficking—on a continent where trafficking of children into forced labor is heart-breakingly common. After surveying U.S. consumers, I am convinced that, increasingly, consumers will not only support such policies but will demand fair trade practices from companies they patronize.

One final example is a gentleman who I met at the recent UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking gathering in Vienna. In 1996, a Swiss businessman made a commitment to assist victims of human trafficking Cambodia through the creation of three viable victim-assistance enterprises in Phnom Penh: a soy milk factory, a high-end silk design and manufacturing company, and a catering business that serves meals to garment factory workers. He did so with the financial support and backing from the State Department and International Finance Corporation, based on his business model of trying social programs with commercially viable business activities. More than a decade later, his organization, Hagar International, has empowered thousands of trafficking survivors and “at-risk” women with counseling, literacy training, and vocational skills. Hagar silks and handbags are now sold around the globe, further raising awareness as each item has a tag with information about human trafficking.

We know that different industries have unique and invaluable corporate strengths to contribute. As a starting point, I hope that each of the businesses represented here today will ensure that you have a code of ethical conduct, centered on zero tolerance for trafficking in persons, any form of commercial sexual exploitation of children, and forced labor. Such policies should be well publicized within the organization and—of paramount importance—distributed to all contractors and suppliers. I urge you, if you are not already doing so, to train your staff, including auditors, human resource and compliance officers, to recognize, monitor and report on human trafficking.

The anti-human trafficking movement is burgeoning in international organizations, non-government organizations, and the public as evidenced by the steady stream of movies, documentary films, TV magazine pieces, newspaper editorials. Taking such steps can only win kudos. I intend to call attention to good corporate citizens, to raise you up as exemplars for others.

I appeal to you on the diplomatic front as well. Many of you represent multinational companies. Do not underestimate the power of your “economic voice” in letting foreign business and political leaders know that your company cares about human trafficking and chooses to do business in countries where strong anti-trafficking policies are in place.

Our message must be unambiguous and clear: both the public and private sector have zero tolerance for human trafficking of any kind. I hope today’s symposium paves the way for increased partnership with the private sector—partnerships that come in all shapes and sizes such that any company can contribute tangibly to not just mitigating but eradicating modern-day slavery. I am happy to take your questions.

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