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Slaves in the Global Supply Chain

SLAVERY HAS BEEN formally abolished in most countries, but many people around the world are still forced to labor in captive conditions without pay in plantations, building sites, and mines. That sad reality was easier to ignore before globalization, but with the worldwide distribution of goods, slavery is creeping into the global supply chain, campaigners say. “You can’t even be certain that the cell you have in your pocket wasn’t made with slave labor,” says Aidan McQuade, director of London-based Anti-Slavery International, which was founded in 1839.

McQuade explains that colombo-tantalite ore, or coltan, used to make components for cellphones, is mined principally in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DCR) where forced labor is common. Manufacturers try to source coltan from responsible producers, but it is impossible to be certain that all the ore comes from certified mines.

Industrial supply chains have become so vast and complex that it is impossible for companies to be absolutely sure that none of their suppliers use forced labor and that all of them meet acceptable hygiene and safety standards.

Slavery today comes in many forms, such as withholding wages to repay inflated debts, holding workers prisoner, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay, withholding passports, and trafficking people across frontiers. Women and girls are forced to work in the sex trade.

In November, London’s Observer newspaper reported that San Francisco-based Gap Inc. was buying garments in India stitched by children working “in conditions close to slavery.” In a statement, Gap said that its investigation found that one of its suppliers had “subcontracted to an unauthorized subcontractor without the company’s knowledge or approval.”

Gap’s predicament shows how common forced labor is. Like many multinationals that have outsourced production to the developing world, Gap has set up a code of conduct to prevent labor abuse. It said in a statement that in 2006, it “ceased business” with 23 factories due to code violations. It has 90 people around the world to enforce its vendor code of conduct.

Companies operating in industries where labor exploitation is a risk should use their influence to press for policy changes in the countries where they operate, says McQuade. The chocolate industry is trying to do just that. It set up a pilot scheme to combat forced labor after TV reporters found cacao plantations in Africa were using child labor, he says.

Forced labor is hard to root out, however, because it is deeply embedded into many countries’ economic and political systems. For instance, the State Department’s 2007 report on human trafficking says that Brazilian Senator João Ribeiro was convicted in 2005 for forcing 38 workers to live in slave-like conditions on his plantation, and he was fined $341,000. The fine was cut by 90 percent on appeal. Ribeiro said in a local media interview at the time that “labor inspectors confuse labor violations with slave labor.”

Trafficking in people in developed countries is usually seen as a problem restricted to the sex trade. But McQuade says about half the people trafficked to the west are laborers.

Forced labor is especially widespread in China, where enforcement of workers’ rights is minimal, says Neha Misra, global coordinator for Counter Trafficking Programs with the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, an arm of the AFL-CIO.

The United States is not immune to the problem either. The Southern Poverty Law Center said in a 2007 report that U.S. contractors held Latino workers captive to demolish buildings and to work in hotels in post-Katrina New Orleans.

In 2006, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reached a $1 million settlement with Los Angeles-based Trans Bay Steel Inc. for making Thai welders work in “slave-like conditions.” An EEOC statement says they “had their passports confiscated, had their movements restricted, and were forced to work without pay.”

In December 2007, the House of Representatives voted 405-2 to pass the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act extending protections worldwide against human trafficking. The legislation would establish new programs to combat trafficking at its source, require foreign labor recruiters to provide better information, and offer additional protections to victims.

It’s all about the money, of course. “There is a lot of pressure to get cheap labor, so trafficking and forced labor is a way to do this,” says Misra. This trade in humans saves companies about $32 billion a year, says McQuade.

Consumers share some of the blame. They seek out the cheapest goods without thinking about how companies can achieve those cut-rate prices.