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Say No to Slave-Made Products

Mark P. Lagon, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Guest Columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Washington, DC
September 9, 2008

Fighting human trafficking is a priority for the United States because its impact is so horrific.

As the State Department's envoy charged with combating trafficking, I cannot forget such courageous survivors as Aye Aye Win, who I met in Southeast Asia.

Aye Aye Win -- together with hundreds of other Burmese men, women and children -- was desperate for employment. She was lured to a shrimp processing plant in the middle of a jungle in a neighboring country. The factory was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. Workers weren't allowed to leave. They weren't paid.

Aye Aye and a few other women tried to escape. When they were caught, they were dragged back, beaten, tied to a stake in the middle of the common yard and refused food and water. Aye Aye's head was shaved. The women were tortured to warn others against escape.

That is forced labor. It's slavery.

Aye Aye might well have been peeling shrimp for the American market, where shrimp is the No. 1 seafood consumed. Invariably, goods enter the global marketplace while consumers have little or no knowledge of the supply chains and work conditions that resulted in their production.

Forced labor is not just a moral matter; it's legally prohibited -- under U.S. and international law, including the 2000 Palermo Protocol to the United Nations Crime Convention, which deals with trafficking in people.

To eradicate forced labor, we must deny slave-made products access to our markets to reduce incentives for exploitative employers and to encourage ethical business behavior.

It is first the responsibility of governments to effectively enforce their own laws regarding forced labor. The State Department works assiduously with governments across the globe to enhance capacity and promote enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security also works to implement U.S. laws that prohibit the import of products made with forced labor.

But I believe it is also incumbent upon consumers and "buyers" -- in this case the larger companies that package shrimp for export -- to ensure the products they provide are not derived wholly or in part from forced labor.

The complexity of supply chains, with networks of subcontractors and the obscure locations of some production facilities such as the shrimp factory where Aye Aye toiled, make it difficult for business to ferret out gross exploitation.

Confronting forced labor around the world is more feasible if government and business share information on export products and production chains.

Earlier this summer, Coca-Cola sponsored "Engaging Business: Addressing Forced Labor," an event that highlighted the steady efforts of U.S. businesses to confront this travesty. Leaders include Manpower for insisting that employment agencies drive out shark recruiters, Nike for urging Asian governments to reduce migrant vulnerability to forced labor and Hewlett-Packard for its probing audits on supply chains.

Companies can take significant steps to combat forced labor. Each should maintain a code of ethical conduct banning forced labor and distribute its policy to all contractors and suppliers. Staff worldwide should be trained to recognize, monitor and report on human trafficking in accordance with international definitions, not local cultural norms.

The U.S. Government will do its part through more intense tracking of international efforts and heightening public awareness. Our message must be clear: In the U.S., both the public and private sector have zero tolerance for forced labor. We must take advantage of globalization's many strengths while curbing the potential for extreme forms of brutality and exploitation.

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