The Reality of Modern Slavery

Friday, May 18, 2018
Ahmad Masood/Reuters
Mark P. Lagon

Chief Policy Officer, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; Former Ambassador-At-Large and Director, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, U.S. Department of State


Adjunct Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations (via videoconference)

E. Benjamin Skinner

Founder and Principal, Transparentem

Kira Kay

Ferris Professor of Journalism, Princeton University

From debt bondage in India, forced labor in North Korea, and human trafficking in Europe and the United States, an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. Slavery, long banned and universally condemned, usually takes one of the following forms in today’s society: bonded labor, domestic servitude, sexual exploitation, or forced marriage. Panelists discuss the extent of the problem, factors contributing to it, and possible solutions for helping those trapped in dire situations.

For further reading, please see the CFR InfoGuide “Modern Slavery: An Exploration of Its Root Causes and the Human Toll.”

KAY: Good afternoon. I’d like to welcome all our members to the 14th Annual Arthur C. Helton Memorial Lecture.

I’m Kira Kay. I am a journalist. I’m currently in residence at Princeton University, teaching post-conflict and human rights reporting. And I’m very honored to be your moderator today for this discussion on the realities of modern-day slavery.

It was 15 years ago this summer that Arthur Helton was killed in Iraq while working to ease the suffering of people upended by that conflict. At the time Arthur was director of peace and conflict studies and senior fellow for refugee studies and preventive action here at CFR. This lecture is dedicated to Arthur’s lifetime mission of serving the world’s humanitarian and refugee crises.

I can say personally that these events have become some of the most meaningful for me as a member. And I would like to personally thank and welcome Arthur’s widow, Jacqueline Gilbert, here today, and to all of his friends also here in the room.

KAY: Great. Hi, Gayle. Doing a sound check. (Laughs.)

LEMMON: Hi. Good morning.

KAY: Good morning. (Laughs.)

And thanks again to all of you. As you just heard from that interactive, some great, important facts and figures to learn, even just starting with the notion that 40 million people today are what we call modern-day slaves. That’s the size of the population of California.

Despite this, there is good cause for optimism in no small part because of the work being done by people like our panelists today. Joining me—you have their bios in your pamphlets, but just very quickly: Ambassador Mark Lagon, who directed the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department from 2007 to 2009. Through the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, he continues to forge partnerships to end slavery.

Ben Skinner is a former journalist who now brings these skills to investigate—to investigate corporate supply chains through his nonprofit, Transparentem. He’s also written a terrific book—I’m reading it now—called A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

And joining us by teleconference is Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, adjunct senior fellow for women and foreign policy here at CFR, bestselling author, and frequent media contributor, including on the issue of child marriage. Thanks.

So let’s build a little bit off of what we saw in the video. Let’s elaborate on the industries where slavery is most prevalent. We saw some hints in the video. We saw some commercial fishing. We saw agriculture. The interactive is flagging industries that are labor-intensive, low-skilled, and underregulated. Ben, why don’t you outline for us just a couple of the main offenders, how it works on the ground, and then how does it enter our everyday lives.

SKINNER: Sure. First of all, thanks very much, Kira, and thanks to the Council for hosting.

I’m so glad. As Mark can tell you, 18 years ago this was a glimmer on the policy eye—in the policy eye. And the trafficking law that was passed at the end of the Clinton administration, which Mark did such a terrific job of enforcing from the State Department for the years that you held that office, has really brought it here today.

For me, it’s a homecoming. I started my career here at the Council, and it’s terrific that this has risen to this level.

To your question, the—slaves today are everywhere and nowhere. There really isn’t any major industry that isn’t infected at some level with slavery. I began looking primarily at industries that were on the outskirts of war, where there was social degradation, where there was isolation, with the assumption that that’s where I would find slaves—slaves, again, forced to work, held through fraud, threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.

What I found as I kept going, and moved from writing for Time magazine to Bloomberg Businessweek, and started at Bloomberg focusing on corporate supply chains, is that this does, indeed, touch the products that we buy every day in some way, shape, or form. But here’s the key part: What I found was for the most part the brands and the retailers that are consumer-facing aren’t aware that slavery is in their supply chains or, in many cases—and/or aren’t doing enough to be aware, to become aware.

Traffickers, in essence, are parasites. They are stealing the wages. They are exploiting the vulnerable. And it’s really the job of everybody who has a stake in a company, who has a role in government to stand up and understand their sphere of influence and concern on this issue.

KAY: And you’ve looked closely in particular at commercial fishing, which is a large industry. Just give us a nuts and bolts. How does it work? How does it get to us?

SKINNER: Sure. For Bloomberg we looked at slavery in a national industry where, frankly, we didn’t expect to find this, the New Zealand slavery—or, sorry, fishing industry. There was a system called a foreign charter vessel system which essentially allowed foreign-flagged vessels to come and fish in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone and not adhere to New Zealand labor laws. This blind spot on the part of an otherwise very responsibly-managed fishery, certainly responsibly-managed in terms of the environmental province, allowed for gross exploitation, debt bondage, workers that were traveling from places like central Java in Indonesia that dreamed of a better life for them and their families. And when they got onboard these vessels, they found endemic physical violence, sexual violence—which is something we didn’t expect to find, but found was endemic with the male crews and the—and the male officers. And the good news is when we went to the brands and retailers and said, hey, this is what we found, please give us a comment, we’ll be going out over the Bloomberg terminals in 72 hours, lo and behold there were those that actually cared, and there were those that actually shifted their buying practices and those that leaned on their suppliers. And ultimately, many of the workers that we focused on wound up winning in civil litigation millions of dollars of judgment. And the New Zealand parliament did the right thing: Three months after the piece was published, they banned foreign charter vessels.

KAY: Terrific.

Mark, you’ve traveled the world also looking at this. Tell us some of the common themes that you have heard, despite geographic differences, demographic differences. What drives people into these situations? And what allows exploitation to continue unchecked?

LAGON: Well, one of the classic issues about human rights in the world is people asking whether the problem is lack of rule of law or poverty that’s the driver, and the answer is both. But it is these ungoverned zones, these places where already-marginalized or scorned people are more easily treated as mere commodities. It could be fishing on the high seas, but any number of places.

So, for the survivor, they are often not the most destitute people. Sometimes they are people who are willing to take a risk to be a migrant, to send remittances back to their family, but they are snookered into something.

You know, we peel back layers of the onion to learn more. A precursor of learning about human trafficking on the high seas was seafood processing on land. When I was at the State Department—and roughly 10 years ago I spoke here, when I was the ambassador, about human trafficking. I had recently gone to Thailand and I had met a young woman who was Burmese. And she has been wooed by a trafficker: Come to Thailand and you will have a better life because it will be less turbulent politically and there will be economic opportunity. And she was in a remote seafood processing factory with high fences with the pokey parts pointing inward to keep people in, and she’s one of four young women who tried to flee and was dragged back into the camp, beaten, and then had her head shaved in front of people.

And that captured the hope for a better life, the desire for profits at any cost—human cost—on the part of greedy people, the violence and the degradation. And many forms of human trafficking, whether sex trafficking or labor-related trafficking, have those qualities.

KAY: Gayle, would you like to add? What kind of drivers have you seen in the field in your reporting?

LEMMON: You know, I remember years ago being in Bosnia when I was first very new.

First of all, it’s really a pleasure to join you and to learn from this panel and from all of you.

I will say you often feel inadequate when you talk about this because what people are facing who have lived through this and the courage that they show is so significant.

And how is my audio? Are you OK for hearing me?

KAY: How are you out there? We’re OK? OK.

LEMMON: So what you see often are young people who have no other choice in their minds whether they do or not, and they will talk to you about that extensively. And I think the case I’ve just—(off mic)—of Yazidi young women is a story of trafficking at a—(off mic)—almost its open (epoch ?), own volume, its own set of very different drivers, but related.

KAY: You mentioned power/dehumanization tactics in your soundbite. Seventy percent are women. One in four is a child. That’s astounding to me. How are women and children recruited at such intense numbers?

LEMMON: You know, so many times women feel the responsibility for their community, for their family, and so they will take on almost whatever role. Or what we saw—what I saw in Bosnia were young women who thought that they were going to have a better life for themselves and for their families, and so they took these jobs in Europe thinking that those jobs would be great, and ended up being trafficking survivors who then came back and tried to tell other young women what was actually happening.

KAY: Anything you would like to add on the women and children recruitment?

LAGON: Well, it’s a very gendered issue. And, of course, the human trafficking movement in the United States and Europe was driven by people with this image of women flowing out of the former Soviet Union into sex trafficking, and a lot of the religious activists and feminist activists were focused on that. And so when you say the issue is gendered and women are particularly vulnerable, it is very important to remember that labor-related trafficking is as much of a threat to, you know, females in the world of slavery as the sex trafficking.

Indeed, we really pushed at the State Department in my short tenure from 2007 to 2009 to look at one demographic fact, that there’s much more labor-related trafficking than sex trafficking in the world. They are both important, but you must not talk only about sex trafficking. And that for labor trafficking, it is not only undocumented or irregular migrants, but sometimes guest workers with papers in debt bondage, and that the impunity rates, the lack of punishment, is much higher in the area of labor trafficking. Basic facts.

KAY: I’m curious, a little bit more about that. The number of prosecutions are so much higher, and they’re not even sufficient enough, but in cases of sex trafficking than labor trafficking. Why is that? Is there just more political will? Is it easier to identify? Does the media drive this? I certainly know from my own journalism, you know, sex trafficking in Cambodia is an easier sell than brickmaking in Cambodia. What’s driving this?

LAGON: To all your hypotheses: yes, yes, and yes.

KAY: Yes, yes, and yes. (Laughs.)

LAGON: But the State Department report started breaking down the number of prosecutions and survivors found by sex and labor trafficking during my tenure at the State Department, and there is a much more striking emphasis on prosecution for sex trafficking. It’s more lurid. It’s more moving. Excuse me for saying this, it’s more sexy in the eyes of the media and those who are focused on it.

KAY: Sure.

LAGON: It is easier to look for.

I do think in some ways monied interests are tougher to beat. You’ve written about this, but if you look at the labor trafficking problem that used to exist in a slightly larger scale, but it still persists in Brazil, the reason that people didn’t deal with it was because of monied landowners. And the same is true in a demographic epicenter for human trafficking, South Asia and India.

KAY: Ben, have you seen that as well?

SKINNER: Yeah. And I want to make a point here. I once interviewed a federal prosecutor who said something from his experience, and he’d done dozens of cases and had worked to liberate ultimately hundreds of victims. He said the number one determinant of whether a trafficking victim will be raped or not is not whether they’re in a brick kiln or in a brothel, it’s whether they’re a woman. Gender is the primary determinant of sexual violence. And as we saw on the boats, it isn’t the only determinant, and just being a man doesn’t insulate you from that type of violence and that type of humiliation. But I concur entirely that gender puts a certain lens on this.

I will say in the—I want to endorse what Mark was saying. Sex is more salient. Because prostitution is for the most part across Western democracies and the rest of the world illegal, the victim who is trafficked into commercial sex is more likely to come in contact with the—with law enforcement. Law enforcement can be one of two things at that point. And typically they would prosecute the victim instead as a perpetrator of a crime against the state rather than a victim of a crime against humanity. Thanks to the work that the State Department did, particularly under Mark’s leaders, under Ambassador deBaca’s leadership, I think that conversation has largely shifted, and it’s shifted here in the United States as well.

I do think there is another conversation that has to happen, and that’s over immigration policy. And not to touch a third rail, but I think it’s—(laughter)—

LAGON: Go for it. (Laughter.)

SKINNER: I think it’s extremely important to say—to echo what Mark was saying. So many of these workers want to find a better life. They are simply seeking to pursue the dreams that are presented to them by traffickers, who of course don’t present themselves as traffickers. They present themselves as recruiters. In the highlands of southern Haiti, they would present themselves as “ami,” a friend—a friend of the family. And what they are selling, really, is something that is not delivered at the other end. So I think when we—when we—when we strictly look at the documented status of immigrants and don’t carefully talk to them about the circumstances in which they moved, we are potentially complicit with those—with those traffickers.

The number one reason why these folks don’t self-identify is the traffickers play on their fear of authority.

LAGON: Exactly.

SKINNER: And so I think we have to—we have to factor that into our immigration policies.

KAY: Mark, you—

LAGON: The worst part of human trafficking is that someone who’s vulnerable because of poverty is exploited, violated, and then treated as being at fault. It’s horrendous.

Calling this slavery is important, not just to mobilize a movement of left-right, secular and faith-based, but to not focus on the movement of people across borders as the distinctive quality. Someone can be a child in prostitution or in a brick kiln in India and never cross a border, or someone can be a legal guest worker and be a human trafficking victim. But the worst thing that one could do in U.S. policy is to lose the consensus that there is a type of undocumented worker who’s been subject to sufficient force, fraud, and coercion that it ain’t their fault and they’re a human trafficking victim.


LAGON: Last thought. There was a Congressman Lamar Smith from Texas who with the original trafficking law said there ought to be a cap on the number of humanitarian visas given to human trafficking victims because people will game the system, there will be undocumented workers who game the system. We’ve never gotten anywhere near that ceiling that he insisted on. We need to find more and realize there is a difference, as Ben says.

KAY: Gayle, did you want to add? I have a follow up for you.


KAY: Mmm hmm, go ahead.

LEMMON: The language matters. I remember doing a piece on young women who were trafficked, and people did not want to call them trafficking survivors. And I insisted that we did because these were, in this case, American children who had been trafficked. And, you know, editors were not comfortable at that time calling them trafficking victims. And I think the language and the way we talk about this matters a great deal.

KAY: And just to follow up on that, I mean, again, we tend to think immediately of countries that aren’t democracies, that don’t have functioning government, that don’t have good law enforcement. But tell me what’s going on here in the U.S. How far would I have to go from this room to find somebody who’s enslaved? Gayle, would you like to answer?

LEMMON: I would say you probably could do it within several blocks would be my guess. And it also goes to definition. There are people who want to call child marriage in America trafficking because these are young American girls who have no choice and are being compelled into marriage. So I think there’s also that discussion. But I think in terms of labor, you know—and I know that both of you have worked on this extensively—but from the work I’ve seen, this is not only happening in South Asia; we can go to South Bronx.

LAGON: I’ll piggyback on that.

KAY: Please.

SKINNER: I would say within a block you can go and buy a product that, based on our current investigation—I can’t talk about any details of what Transparentem is doing; our model is go to first to the brands and retailers and give them an opportunity to fix the problems before the reports go into a continuum of disclosure. But within a block or two you could find products that are infected with slavery.

KAY: I’d like to talk a little bit about the increased risk to the record numbers of people that are displaced in the world and living in conflict today. Mark, how are refugees particularly vulnerable? We’re hearing about the Rohingya right now in the media. What are the issues?

LAGON: Well, you know, those who are desperate and are driven from their homes are obviously subject to people who would recruit them. There are those situations that one sees with ISIS where it’s just strictly people being rounded up and put into a remarkably coercive situation both in terms of sexual and labor exploitation, but it oftentimes still involves recruitment. And, as families are desperate and moving, they are subject to it. And we’ve seen a lot of it even from those who are coming from the Middle East and North Africa up towards Europe, which is, you know—you know, at the center of the West.

KAY: Gayle, you’re just back from northern Iraq. Our members may have heard of the plight of the Yazidi a few years back. Catch us up on what you heard and in particular challenges there in terms of rehabilitation/reintegration.

LEMMON: Yeah. So I was just in northern Syria and northern Iraq, and there is an enormous challenge of what comes next for the Yazidi women who were enslaved by ISIS. There is now a process by which the women can return to their communities, but oftentimes they have children, and no one wants to take the children. And so you have women who are giving up their babies the moment they’re born because they have this Sophie’s choice of either keeping their child or going back to the family member who’s still alive because they cannot do both. Or you have women who are hiding from their families with these babies, trying to figure out what to do.

And the world, I think, has done a rather miserable job of doing anything other than exploiting these people once more by telling their stories without actually following up and saying what comes next. You need resources, psychosocial support, education. You have people who have endured human slavery, the worst kinds of violence, and then they return to their under-resourced communities and you say let us know how it goes. You can imagine, as you see four years on, living in tents what life looks like. And you have a number of very over-tapped, under-resourced charities trying to get them the support and the care that they need after being through things that are truly unimaginable.

KAY: And Mark briefly touched on this, ISIS’s use of slavery for fundraising purposes. How does that work? And the security risk that comes with this process. Go ahead, Gayle.

LEMMON: You know, I mean, so survivors will talk about being moved multiple times, being sold multiple times. They have very little access to justice. So they are trying to process things that are almost impossible to process, right? And so you see organizations trying to help them with things like music therapy, right, with things like art therapy, trying to figure out how do you help people reenter society. But this was not an anomaly for ISIS; this was central to the rules that governed what they thought were perfectly appropriate ways of behavior that were codified. This was not a happenstance, nor was it a one-off. This was very much a systematic and codified—(inaudible)—of human slavery and bondage.

KAY: Mark and Ben, some—do you want to add specifically to that? Yeah.

SKINNER: Well, just—yeah. In terms of what happens with these refugees when they escape situations like the Rohingya, which—who you’ve mentioned, I’ve spent a lot of time in Bangladesh. Reintegrating them into Bangladeshi society is not an easy thing. And, you know, many Bangladeshis have not terribly charitable views of the Rohingya, which is part of the reason for their stateless nature at the moment.

I would say the critical element here is these folks need to be able to feed themselves, they need—they need jobs, and the major industries that are involved in so many of these areas where these folks are passing through—for example, in Turkey, the Syrian refugees passing through Turkey; in Bangladesh, the Rohingya refugees returning to Bangladesh—is the apparel industry. There’s a real role here. And that’s why—one of the reasons why we’re focused on the apparel industry through 2019, in saying to brands and retailers, hey, you know, we’re not telling you not to source from developing countries, but understand the influence, the power that you have in these—in these situations. You can do more, and you have to do more. It’s a moral imperative.

LAGON: If I could widen the aperture from this salient issue of refugees, picking up on what Ben says, with survivors of human trafficking there’s a focus on identifying them, because they don’t self-identify, and on shelter and physical medical care. But therapy is essential because of the trauma that they’ve faced. Crucially, to reclaim one’s dignity, job training and employment that’s viable is important. And that’s true of many kinds of human trafficking victims, not just those that are refugees.

I’ve worked on a project called the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and it includes some iconic brands like Coca-Cola and Microsoft and Google and some others. But one thing that this coalition is trying to do is something that business has a comparative advantage on, which is to train people and to put them into viable jobs so that they can thrive. And I’m tempted to say so they can thrive again, but they may never have.

LEMMON: Can I add to that?

KAY: Please.

LEMMON: It is urgent, because I think we do a very good job of ventilating some of these stories and a rather lousy job in actually doing anything to make the situation better for survivors. And so many people feel like the system is re-victimizing and re-traumatizing a lot of people who have been through unimaginable things. The work piece, the economic follow-up piece, the work that provides dignity piece, is absolutely essential if you want to talk about breaking cycles of poverty and undereducation, and so many of the drivers that lead communities to be very vulnerable in the first place.

KAY: We haven’t talked about India. It’s one of the major case studies in the interactive. And, in fact, the interactive teaches us that the greatest number of slaves is in Asia, and that’s just not—not just a population question. But that leads me to sort of a more sculpted question, which is about societal attitudes. In India, a great feeder of the slavery system is the caste system. And it is illegal in India, and yet it persists. How much of a driver are societal attitudes in some of these cases? I’ve seen it myself with the talibé, the forced beggars in Senegal, where certainly economic drivers were at the heart of it but there was an acceptance among parents that begging was a good way to develop your children to be tough and hardened to succeed in life. So how do we address the sort of sensitive cultural attitudes? And how is that best done?

LAGON: Can I start?

KAY: Yes.

LAGON: There are two kinds of cultural norms that are problematic: sort of tolerating practices because they’re seen as cultural—you know, child labor is, you know, a normal thing in this West African country, and so therefore you need to understand that it’ll be hard to change, or who are we to judge. And, you know, we’ve managed to realize, you know, for instance, with female genital cutting and other things, there are just some issues that are fundamentally a universal, and that you can’t make that, you know, cultural relativism argument.

Then there is just simply prejudice and systematic views that certain categories of people are lesser people or non-people. And so it’s true of the caste system. Now, fully a decade ago, when I was a State Department envoy working on this, the dialogue with India was, well, you’ve had a law that would liberate people since 1976 if they were in bonded labor and they should receive restitution; can’t you force your states and your localities to work on it? And the response was, well, you too in the United States have a federal system; you can’t make states do things that are in their legal ambit. And I said we had this thing called the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, in our country, apparently we’re walking backwards in some respects. But people being considered less than human, notably Dalits, are, you know, a reason for some laws being on the books but people not having, as Gayle puts it, access to justice.

KAY: OK. Did you want to add?

SKINNER: Interesting topical comment there, given—(laughter)—referring to people as “animals.”

So I would say in India you have extraordinarily progressive courts at the national level, generally speaking. And you have, as you referred to, the Bonded Labor Abolition Act. But the abolition of caste, although it was supposed to have happened at the time of independence, has not happened in India. And in India it’s the Dalit. In Sudan—northern Sudan, it will be the Dinka. It will be the Nuer. There are—in the—in Romania it will be the Roma. There are always these outcast communities which historically have suffered from slavery, and the legacy of slavery persists today. So I—you can’t address these issues head-on without confronting certain aspects of pernicious culture that are still with us.

KAY: Thank you. All right, let’s take a few minutes for a couple more solutions, and then we’ll turn it over.

Mark, the role of governments in addressing slavery, here in the U.S. and internationally as well. The U.K. has a promising new Modern Slavery Act. President Obama signed legislation in 2016 that had been brought forward by Senator Corker, I believe. We’ve had, as mentioned, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the TIP Office since 2000. How are government efforts doing? Where do we stand?

LAGON: Well, look, I’m biased. I was a bit player in the original Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and then I got to head the office that the law created at the State Department. I think as we add new tools, some of them very welcome—for instance, legislation has recently been passed that would sort of hold internet companies to account for children or women being essentially sold in sex trafficking online—that’s a move forward.

But as we invent new things, it’s worth strengthening those tools that work. So the State Department—it’s not so known, but the State Department offices’ work is as important in giving funding to nonprofits and civil society organizations around the world to fight the problem as the report.

And the report, for any marginal failings it may have—occasional imprecisions, occasional cases of subjectivity—has worked. The dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, Judith Kelley, has published a book, Scorecard Diplomacy, that proves methodologically that the TIP Report gets countries to change their laws. But they don’t implement them in the end. And so that is one issue around the world, is the difference between putting a law on the books that says human trafficking/slavery is verboten and actually implementing it.

SKINNER: If I can—

KAY: Yes, Ben?

SKINNER: If I can add to that. From my perspective, the key partner here is the private sector. And when I did that fishing story, half of the world’s 175 largest economic entities were corporations. Today it’s north of 75 percent, and that is only—that is only accelerating. Corporate might vis-à-vis government might, state might, is only increasing.

Laws, I think, are very important inasmuch as they can harness that, as they can leverage that influence. If Walmart calls up New Zealand, as apparently they did after this story, New Zealand will jump because Walmart is a big buyer. And what we saw over and over again was when corporations push on certain enforcement issues, on certain legal issues, they will—the states will follow.

But critically, the laws have to have a certain element of teeth. And in the—in the final months of the Obama administration, there was a tariff act—the 1930 Tariff Act—which for years had had a loophole in it. The Tariff Act essentially said you can’t import goods into the United States that are made with slavery or made with prison labor. And the loophole you could drive, you know, hundreds of shipping containers through, and that unless we can’t produce enough of it here in the United States to meet consumer demand. So that loophole was closed, and since that loophole has been closed there have been five seizures by the Department of Homeland Security of goods that were made with slave—allegedly made with slave labor overseas.

That wakes you up if you’re an importer or you’re a retailer, because you know not only have you had your goods seized and that’s going to cost you millions of dollars, but you could wind up on the frontpage of The Wall Street Journal for the wrong reason. And so I think adding teeth in targeted ways like that is an extremely effective tool that the government has.

LAGON: How could—how could such a thing take 85 years after that loophole was created—(laughter)—and a good 15 years after human trafficking legislation was passed?

I just want to make one point. You could have a continuum of letting businesses police themselves or having the most onerous and detailed micro-managerial regulation. But there is a position in the middle which I think is worth thinking about, that a California law and the U.K. Modern Slavery Act emphasize, which is to make businesses report on what they’re doing to check out their supply chains. And it isn’t enough, but to propel businesses to say what they’re doing and have their competitors be able to show them up by doing more can create a positive dynamic in the marketplace in the eyes of consumers.

KAY: But with this law, a company could post their information and say we’re using slavery, and yet still really be in compliance with that law.

SKINNER: In compliance.

KAY: That’s really all they have to do here, right.

SKINNER: True, and then it’s up to the consumer as to whether they want to. And that disclosure has to be on their website. So it’s up to consumers to decide whether that’s what—a company that they want to buy from.

I think also, critically, the Modern Slavery Act in the U.K. requires board sign-off on that disclosure. When corporate boards get involved, things change.

KAY: And, Ben, just to follow up a little bit you’re using investigative journalistic techniques. We had a little discussion on kind of the hardball tactics you’re using. Just tell us a little bit about how you’re doing this?

SKINNER: Sure. We—

KAY: I know you’re going to quibble with “hardball.” (Laughs.)

SKINNER: Hardball, but we give them a signal that we’re going to throw a fastball right down the middle and they can hit it.

But anyway, it’s—we use investigative ethics and methods to understand where slavery, environmental degradation, et cetera, are in corporate supply chains. And we go to brands and retailers and we give them an opportunity to use their leverage and their power to fix the problems before we go to their boards, before we go to their investors, before we go to regulators on their industries, and before we go to select journalists.

And I can’t get into too many details, given the—where we are at the moment, but early on—I can talk about this, as it’s already in disclosure—we looked at an illegal tannery district in Bangladesh where a WHO study found 25 percent of the workers were under the age of 11, and chrome and lead and cadmium were going into the drinking water for about 500,000 people downstream. To your point, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh had said this is totally illegal, shut it down. That was in 2009. When we started talking to the buyers of Bangladeshi leather product manufacturers about the situation, it took about three months from the initial contact and three weeks from disclosure for the government of Bangladesh to actually go in and cut all the gas, electricity, and water going into all 154 illegal tanneries and, critically, stand up a half-million-dollar Savar Tannery Estate for those—for those leather manufacturers with a central effluent treatment plant. So, again, business swings a big stick.

KAY: Mark, very quickly, do businesses have an obligation to the victims of slavery in their supply chain?

LAGON: Oh, absolutely. And I—you know, there’s a tilt towards punishing the bad guy in the U.S. law, the U.N. treaty, and the way we look at this. The most—thing that you can do for the victim that’s most about justice is to punish the perpetrator. But I think, you know, the greatest moral imperative is for assisting survivors.

Those companies that have it happening in their business operations or in their supply chains have to have some responsibility. This notion that you can devolve responsibility down layers of a supply chain by having supplier agreements that lawyers construct, that it’s the people farther down the supply chain who own the injustice, is just—it’s intolerable.

But I do think businesses could do something to help employ those they find to be survivors. We need a between the NGOs who work with the survivors and the businesses who could put them to work.

KAY: Great idea.

And just to wrap up, to bring Gayle back in one more time, an anecdote, if you have one, on the changing of public awareness among vulnerable communities. Have you seen any that encourage you? As simple as just the beginning to understand that there is no waitressing job in Amsterdam, or even a greater understanding of what freedom means and what laws might be available for victims.

LEMMON: Yes. I guess two things.

One, to pick up on the idea of business, we do not ask enough of consumers. I truly believe that folks who care about this issue must take responsibility for their own wallet. And people feel so disempowered sometimes I feel like we don’t ask enough of ourselves because you vote with every dollar you spend. And we teach a case at Harvard Business School every year about entrepreneurship in conflict zones, and I always push people to think about the money that you spend and where it goes, and to ask more of ourselves about where these dollars go and how things are as cheap as they are.

On the trafficking, yes, I mean, you see organizations now giving our flyers, going to school, talking to young women in particular, having survivors come back and talk about that. And I do think survivors are some of the most powerful voices when they are able to really go back to communities and say this is what’s happening, and you must know this, and we together can work for something better.

KAY: Thank you. Great.

I would like to open this up to our members, a lot of great minds in the room. Reminder: We are on the record. So, if you get the microphone, please state your name, your affiliation, and please limit to one concise question. Thanks.

Where would we like to start here? Is the microphone there on the back table? Right there, yes. Thanks.

Q: Thank you. And thank you to all the panelists.

I’d like to follow up on—oh, stand.

KAY: And let us know who you are, please, also, so we can have a record. There are a lot of people working around the world on this and we want them to have it.

Q: I’m Catherine Shimony of Global Goods Partners.

KAY: Perfect.

Q: And I’d like to follow up on Gayle’s last point because I run a fair-trade organization. We’ve all talked about the power of business and—but I’d like to follow up on your point of the power in the consumer. And I agree with everything you said, but I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on how do we engage the public more because I’m sure there’s a lot that you’re doing that people just aren’t aware, and they don’t even really think about the power in their purchase. So could you speak to that a bit?

KAY: Ben? Yeah.

SKINNER: So Transparentem isn’t, strictly speaking, a consumer-facing organization. We actually don’t, in the traditional sense, publish anything. My lawyer would remind me every time we pass a report to somebody you’re publishing it, but we don’t put anything on our website.

We do, however, have partners such as Fashion Revolution and others that I think do a pretty good job of talking about who’s doing what within the apparel industry. There’s a—there’s a group called KnowTheChain, which is funded by Humanity United. KnowTheChain will rank companies based on their—based on their policies on human trafficking as disclosed under S.B. 657, under the California Transparency and Supply Chains Act. And I think that law gives consumers a tool, as does the Modern Slavery Act.

Those compulsory disclosures really enable consumers to go in and say, OK, am I going to purchase from a company that puts the bare minimum out there in terms of, you know, here’s—we don’t have any policy on slavery in our supply chains, we don’t do any third-party audits, we don’t have any idea if trafficking is infecting the product you’re buying. That would be a legal disclosure under the California Transparency and Supply Chains Act, but is it an acceptable disclosure for a particular consumer? And I think—I think there are the tools, increasingly, to understand that and to—and to go towards those companies.

And you see this increasingly in the—in the apparel world. You see Everlane coming out and talking about their factories: meet our workers, you know, this product came from this particular factory. You see Patagonia. When Patagonia had slavery in their textile—their Taiwanese textile manufacturer some years ago, they didn’t put their head in the sand. They didn’t get into a defensive posture. They got onto a front foot and they said, OK, let’s look at this entire tier in our supply chain. And then, critically, they talked to The Atlantic Monthly about it and they disclosed what they did in a—in a fairly high-profile venue.

I think that kind of transparency is important. And I think particularly for the slightly less than me generation, the Millennial generation—(laughter)—there’s a—there’s a—there’s a real interest in that transparency of buyer to understand what goes into their products.

KAY: All right.


LAGON: Well, a precursor of KnowTheChain was something called Slavery Footprint, which people would put in a few facts about their lifestyle and a calculation which—well-advised by Stanford scholars, was still sort of back-of-the-envelope, but it would calculate how many slaves your lifestyle required. And that would be consciousness-raising. Now, we need the things that are more subtle, as Ben describes.

On awareness, I just want to say that this is a, you know, real tribute to the Council of how it can take something to another level. There is a ton of awareness material on human trafficking and slavery today. Thanks to CNN, you know, we’re well beyond the billboards in terms of raising awareness. But this interactive product really takes things to another level and shows that a, you know, top-drawer organization can do the kind of thing that Slavery Footprint might have wanted to.

KAY: Thanks.

Marcia? Hi.

Q: Thank you. So I’m Marcia Biggs. I’m a journalist—freelance journalist. I work primarily for PBS “NewsHour.”

And something that you said, Mark, really struck a chord when you said we need a between the NGOs that are dealing—that are working with these survivors and then the businesses that could put them to work. And this also picks up on something that Gayle said when she was talking about the way that we cover the stories and we air these stories and then, you know, whatever happens, what comes next.

And, you know, I struggle with this a lot myself. I’ve covered the Yazidis, like Gayle has, the kidnapping and trafficking of those girls; the use of children in armed conflict, which is a whole other kind of trafficking; and then most recently came back from Yemen, where I covered early child marriage. And in all of these situations I feel like there’s a huge disconnect where, you know, I don’t—these pieces air, and I know that the viewers, they write me and they want to help. And then I try to go to the NGOs. And I just—there’s a disconnect. And I want to know what your thoughts are on how we can introduce the journalist into that partnership that you sort of alluded to, this ideal partnership between NGOs and the businesses that could put survivors to work.

LAGON: Well, there’s no era in which we see the power of the journalist more when we have our own rule of law and our own political culture fraying here in the United States. And I think journalists, if they could look at the end of that arc—what happens to the survivor—and really, you know, ask that question and keep going back to it.

Look, if you have finite time, resources, in government or in private industry, isn’t there an imperative to take those survivors you have found and make sure you do something to help them get on their own two feet? And I think that is something that journalists call attention to. What happened to this person who we covered two years ago? And then who didn’t step up?

Q: No, but I—

KAY: Gayle, I know you have some thoughts on this. And it’s a frustration we all share as journalists. We go, we tell the story, we leave, we don’t know if investment has happened. Gayle, tell us your thoughts here.

LEMMON: I think we’re asking a lot from journalism at a time when it is more under-resourced that almost ever before.

KAY: (Laughs.) Sure.

LEMMON: And I think we’re not asking enough of ourselves.

I think, yes, journalists should go back. People should also click and watch those stories when they do go back because people—I think that we’ve reached an era where people want to put the responsibility for changing things on almost everyone else. And the truth is that you vote with your clicks every time you click on a story that’s not about one of these things, and that there has to be more consumer demand to hear what is happening.

You know, Pulitzer Center is one of the biggest and most incredibly generous funders of this kind of coverage. But where is more private-sector work? Where is more philanthropy work to go into covering—providing resources for more of this to be covered? And where is the demand? Because if private-sector companies see interest and demand, they are far more likely to fulfill that than if they’re doing it simply because Marcia, who is an incredible storyteller, goes back and says, listen, we should do this.

And so I think that we should ask more of all of us on this issue. And I do think there is an area for—as journalism is reinvented for the end, then what. How do we make an actual impact on people’s lives and connect them to resources once we have shown a flashlight and illuminated their story?

KAY: Let’s get another question. Bettye?

Q: Bettye Musham.

How do we instill into our society in the U.S. wanting to compensate people that we employ fairly? People take pride in how little they pay their housekeeper, who’s usually undocumented; how little they pay their nannies; how little they pay the people that are pushing people in wheelchairs. How do we make people want to pay and document the payments? There’s no health care for most of these workers. There’s no health. There’s no days off. I mean, how do we make Americans want to pay a competitive, fair wage and obey the law?

KAY: Mark?

LAGON: I may not be giving the answer you want to hear because, of course, a lot of what you may be describing may not be human trafficking. But I would say the notion that this person has a better life than they had where they came from is the biggest slippery slope that you’ll ever see. And you see it all around the world. That migrant worker has it better here than they did back there, so anything goes. And I think that is a mental construct that allows so much exploitation, and even slavery.

SKINNER: I think laws matter. And state by state, county by county, you get different laws on this. I think the—particularly domestic workers tend to be in this netherworld, right, when it comes to their legal protections. And yet, you have seen certain counties—I think it was Montgomery County in Maryland—there was at least one county in Maryland that’s stepped up and says: OK, you have to pay a minimum wage here. And I think—I think that’s where you can—you can begin to—you can begin to get a bit more regulation. But it’s tough. You know, that seven-block radius that Gayle was talking about, I can almost guarantee you, if you’re going to find slaves in there, they’re going to be in domestic worker situations.

LAGON: Right.

Q: (Off mic.)

SKINNER: Right. Yeah.

KAY: Sure. Minh-Thu.

Q: Thank you. Thanks so much. Minh-Thu Pham with the U.N. Foundation.

I wanted to pick up on a point that Mark raised about fraying rule of law and take this to the global level, and some of the things that we’ve seen recently in kind of backsliding of the human rights regime, and in particular moves from certain governments to maybe elevate economic cultural and social rights above political and civil rights, and in particular in the Human Rights Council and some of the institutions that you’ve worked so closely with. How important is it for us to get and defend—get the global human rights regime right, and defend the sort of international norms and principles that we’ve had over the last few years? In particular, at this moment, as we’re looking at the sort of fraying of rule of law around the world. And what can the U.S. do to defend some of that globally? Thank you.

LAGON: Well, I’ll make a broad human rights points, as a former adjunct senior here at the Council for human rights. One, there is a global onslaught on civil society. And countries that are have formal autocracies or ostensible democracies are pressuring civil society organizations, getting them registered, damning them for receiving foreign money. And they are essential for finding, and assisting, and speaking up for people. It sounds hackneyed, but they are the voice for the voiceless. Now, you talk about economic, social and cultural rights. I think we are actually—and I say this as a former Republican—that we are—(laughter)—we are really hung up about economic, social, and cultural rights not being of the same level as political and civil liberties. There are important basic aspirations of people for thriving. And it’s sort of wrongheaded to prioritize that. I mean, the story of human trafficking changed my mind about those things, because it is an issue both of rule of law being lacking and poverty. Those who are treated as disposable people are harmed on both fronts. And they’re so often interlocking problems.

KAY: Anything you’d like to add?

SKINNER: Nothing to add, except to endorse what Mark was saying and, as I tend to do, name names. We’re talking about India, we’re talking about China in terms of those foreign NGO registration laws that make it extraordinarily difficult and onerous for groups that go in and are primarily focused on human rights issues to do their job and speak for the voiceless.

KAY: In terms of global governance—I mean, looking at this from an international labor perspective, Interpol even—what kind of collaboration might you be seeing on a more international scale?

SKINNER: I’d be curious to hear what Gayle and Mark have to say about this, but I—coming back to business for a second—a very interesting term that we’ve heard a lot of recently when we go to brands and retailers is: We consider this conversation to be in a pre-competitive space. We assume that there would be those that want to kind of, like, edge out their competitors on this, but there is, I think, an aspiration on the part of many of these companies to say we want this out of industry. Not just out of our supply chains. We want this out of our industry. And I think that’s extremely exciting, because that leads to not only cross-corporate coordination, but it leads to cross-border coordination. And when you have an entire industry standing up, as they did after Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, and saying, you know, this is—this is unacceptable, that these kind of building safety violations are present anywhere in our industry, that speaks with a lot of fire to governments that are—that are governing export-led economies.

KAY: Question? The gentleman in the middle, yes.

Q: Hi. Alan McGowan at The New School.

So I go to a website and I learn that a company, X, is following what one would consider to be good practices. How do I know that’s true? What kind of follow up is there on the statements that a corporation is making?

SKINNER: So among other things, the California attorney general can seek injunctive relief if a company has falsely disclosed. To date, I don’t think the California attorney general has. Beyond that, in the U.K. the anti-slavery commissioner—who was Kevin Hyland, who’s now—there’s a new one coming in—they are charged with enforcing the veracity of those statements. Bear in mind, the quality of those disclosures will be all over the map. The details in those disclosures will be all over the map. Some will just say, you know, at a very high level, we think this is a really important and we tell our suppliers, please don’t do this. Others will say we conduct third-party audits that are unannounced. We do off-site workers with—I’m sorry—off-site interviews with workers. There is a whole quality kind of difference there that I think I would look for in those disclosures before I decide that this is a company that’s doing the right thing.

And I should say, it’s not just consumers here. It’s investors. And if—and what we’re seeing increasingly—and one of the reasons why we have increasingly detailed conversations with major asset managers and investment groups, is they’re pricing this into their risk. They’re—and insurance companies increasingly are pricing it into their policies. That’s very interesting, because that, all of a sudden, hits the bottom line of those brands and retailers.

KAY: All right. Saw someone over here. There you go.

Q: Hi. Courtney Doggart with Network 20/20.

My question is we talked a lot about government, business, and civil society solutions. And my question is, do you see a role for technology in either raising awareness, closing loopholes, or increasing transparency?

LAGON: Well, technology is, of course, used to lure people into slavery situations, for sexual exploitation, even labor exploitation. But it is a real possibility. We were talking a few days ago in preparation for, you know, the Helton Lecture, about awareness campaigns. And I said that, you know, we’ve kind of moved beyond, as I said earlier, billboards raising awareness about, you know, child sex tourism, to using social media to find and help the survivor or the victim. For instance, many of those people who, you know, were construction workers in the Arabian Gulf, who were subject to human trafficking conditions, a number of them now have access to handheld devices. They can report. They can ask questions. They can protect themselves with a little bit more anonymity. And so, you know, used to be head of Polaris Project. It ran a national hotline for the United States. Google decided that it would—the Google Foundation would assist Polaris in helping other countries with human trafficking hotlines. So there are possibilities.

I will just say one thing is we shouldn’t be too obsessed with big data, because I do think if you think about mapping the traffickers and mapping the trafficking, you might begin to get into the problem of thinking that slavery is about the paths that people are trafficked. And that leads you often to be barking up the wrong tree. It’s about the exploitation, stupid. It’s not about the movement.

KAY: And in what ways is technology more—used more vulnerable in terms of—you know, we’re seeing the Backpage ads. Are there people working on this specific issue that are targeting the recruitment part of all of this?

SKINNER: Yeah, I—technology is both a tool and a threat for what we do.

KAY: That’s what I’m getting at, yeah.

SKINNER: Without getting into too many details, I can say we employ, for example, satellite technology, which can allow us to watch the movement of containers. It can also allow us to, in the case of the Bangladesh situation, see where illegal effluent is coming, et cetera, et cetera.

In terms of communicating with workers, there is no tool more potentially revolutionary than a cellphone. And as Mark says, the degree to which cellphone technology over the last 20 years has plummeted in price, means that you have this ubiquitous tool all over the—all over the world. And that means so many of the exploited have something in their—in their pockets that could potentially, if—if—if they have somebody at the other end that can respond and have their best interest at heart.

Here in the United States, you have a group called the Polaris Project, which Mark knows very much. (Laughter.) I think you were the chair or led it for a bit.

LAGON: CEO, yeah.

SKINNER: They run the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Thousands of calls to that hotline every year, and a reliable person at the other end that will work to connect victims with assistance. That is a model for change. It’s a model for other countries. And I should say, country by country, and industry by industry, that model should be studied and replicated where possible.


KAY: Gayle, yes, please.

LEMMON: Yes. I think—I’ve met survivors who used cellphones to find surviving family members, even in places that were so remote you would be shocked by it. And now in the U.S. front, I had worked on some pieces on child marriage and forced marriage in America. And it was actually a young woman in the Bronx who had called the Polaris hotline when her sister was taken to Saudi Arabia and nearly forced into marriage. And Polaris said: We are not the right people to help you but let us connect you to the people who can help you. And that number really got this then 12-year-old girl—American girl—out of an incredibly perilous situation, though a number of twist and turns. But that—in that case, having a number and having access to a cellphone, and having in some cases—in the case of the child on the other end—she would download apps, communicate on them overnight, and then wipe the apps off the iPad that same night, so that people did not know she was using them to communicate.

KAY: Thank you. Time for one more question. Ma’am, yes.

Q: I was curious about the tanneries. When you shut down those tanneries, what happened to all those people who worked in them? That’s often we have a problem. We have that here in the South, where someone suggested in Louisiana that the EPA should come into this community where people were dying from cancer. Stay away from us, we want our jobs. How do you respond to that?

SKINNER: It’s a very good question. And baked into our mission statement, we say we aim to be a sentinel not a saboteur to these industries, which really employ millions of people who are taking the first step on the ladder out of absolute poverty. And we want to make sure that that first step isn’t a step into slavery or isn’t a step into child labor. In the case of Bangladesh, we knew that there was a solution that had been outlined by the government of Bangladesh to this illegal tannery district, which is in a residential neighborhood where these 154 tanneries had been—had no right to be operating chrome tanning processes. There was a dedicated industrial estate—there is a dedicated industrial estate that was siting largely empty.

And our view was, OK, assuming that the right thing here is inevitable, we want to accelerate the inevitable by bringing in these powerful foreign buyers into the conversation. And I think—I think quite effectively we did that. Not everybody was happy, in terms of the businesses in Bangladesh. But ultimately, I think change is moving in the right direction. We continue to watch, critically. That’s part of our model. And we commit to multiple year investigations following the initial one. And whereas I could go into these tanneries in Hazaribagh, in this—in this previous location, bring out an SLR camera and take photographs of children, and nobody knew there was anything even remotely wrong with this, now it’s very hard to find child workers in this new estate. That’s progress. Is it 100 percent better? No. That’s why we continue to watch.

LAGON: The mention or Rana Plaza raises one example I would like to leave you with, lest you think I will say only good things about companies that are trying to do better. When Rana Plaza happened, and Disney decided to get—move operations out of there to places like Myanmar, that’s exactly the wrong thing. Businesses should use their leverage to press public authorities to actually have laws count. And then they should improve things, instead of getting out, because then you have some of the problem of the tannery that you’re describing.

SKINNER: I think that’s a really important point. We’ve actually shifted our tone. We original said we’re agnostic as to any contractual relationships. And now, the truth is, we’re not. Businesses have influence. If they have been buying from a supplier, they—it’s the Pottery Barn rule. If you broke it, you bought it. So fix it. (Laughter.)

KAY: Thank you. Thanks to all of you, Mark, Gayle—thank you very much for calling in—Ben. Thanks to all of you for your questions. (Applause.)



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