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December 11, 2015

Human Rights First Summit Explores Solutions to Human Trafficking

The 2015 Human Rights First Summit, held December 9 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., featured experts who sought to answer difficult questions on how to combat human trafficking.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez delivered a keynote address, remarking on the immense progress made in the anti-trafficking movement in only the last ten years. In the last decade, all 50 states have passed anti-trafficking legislation, and state and local governments have organized task forces to enforce it. On the federal level, human trafficking prosecutions have risen by 700% nationwide—from 26 cases in 2004 to 208 in 2014. And the federal government started holding itself accountable to fair labor standards via the Federal Acquisition Regulations. Looking forward, Perez called the movement towards eradicating slavery from global supply chains “the wave of the future” in anti-trafficking advocacy.

Perez called for continued coalition building and cooperation between government agencies, NGOs, academics, foreign governments, and corporate actors. A growing number of companies are seeing that “the high road is the smart road for businesses,” as Perez put it. Companies such as Apple and Microsoft are engaging in “inclusive capitalism,” which defines success as more than just the bottom line for stockholders, but also a business’s positive impact on all of its stakeholders. Ultimately, Perez concluded, it will require “unprecedented levels of collaboration and partnership” to effectively combat the ever-evolving, vast underground network of human traffickers who exploit an estimated 21 million victims worldwide.

Following Perez’s remarks, a diverse panel of experts—including Carlos Busquets, Director of Public Policy for the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC); Bama Athreya, Senior Specialist of Labor and Human Rights at USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance; Michael Posner, Professor of Business and Society at NYU’s Stern School of Business; and moderated by Ariel Meyerstein, Vice President of Labor Affairs at the United States Council for International Business (USCIB)—delved deeper into the issue.

The panel reiterated the need for a cooperative, holistic approach to fighting human trafficking, while also emphasizing the need for sector-by-sector intervention and practical problem solving. Bama Athreya provided case-specific examples from the apparel industry in Jordan and the fishing industry in Southeast Asia, where U.S. companies learned to develop best practices, utilize monitoring mechanisms, and work with foreign governments and trade unions to enact country- and sector-specific improvements.

Companies that do business in countries with insufficient rule of law and weak protections for migrant workers have a responsibility to determine the regional and sector-specific root causes and economic drivers of human trafficking. Secretary Perez cautioned companies against taking the “build and pray” approach, wherein a business owner builds a supply chain and simply hopes that it stays free of slavery and forced labor. Rather, he said, it is essential that companies and all of their stakeholders recognize that “we’re all in the prevention business.”

By promoting educational campaigns on social media, encouraging independent auditing of business supply chains, and incentivizing companies to monitor their supply chains by rewarding those that do, stakeholders both within and outside of government can play a large role in keeping companies accountable. And to achieve sustainable change through these multi-pronged efforts, Michael Posner commented, true collaboration must take place between government, business, international financial institutions and philanthropy.

The 2015 Summit celebrated the progress of the anti-trafficking movement and highlighted the positive changes resulting from many high-profile cases, such as the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh and the exposure of state-sponsored forced labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. Yet as Perez noted, when we look at a figure like “21 million victims” of human trafficking worldwide, “we see that our progress is not enough.”

Also on Wednesday, Human Rights First released a new report on corporate liability and human trafficking highlighting what businesses can do to reduce the risk of slavery in their supply chains. Read it here.