On December 31st, 2012, President Obama proclaimed January 2013 to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The official Presidential Proclamation noted, "Around the world, millions of men, women, and children are bought, sold, beaten, and abused, locked in compelled service and hidden in darkness. They toil in factories and fields; in brothels and sweatshops; at sea, abroad, and at home. They are the victims of human trafficking -- a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery."
By all measures, 2012 was full of successes in the battle against these egregious human rights violations, but even more so, the stage is set for 2013 to be a truly historic turning point in the fight against human trafficking.
In 2012, the Obama Administration held the first-ever cabinet meeting convened solely to discuss the issue of human trafficking. On September 25, 2012 Obama issued an executive order that created requirements for greater scrutiny and transparency in the federal procurement process. Obama's order provides better tools to detect, prevent, and respond to agency or contractor involvement in human trafficking in supply chains at home and abroad. By using the purchasing power of government as leverage, this order has the potential to make powerful changes in the way the government hires contractors and sub-contractors. Even more, it sends a message that the U.S. government will not tolerate these abuses to exist in their business dealings.
Obama's order is designed in part to better enforce and implement aspects of the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act (TVPA), which was one of the first bills aimed at combating trafficking. But Congress must reauthorize and amend portions of the bill periodically. The most recent reauthorization occurred in 2008, and now, after nearly a year and a half of delay, the TVPA is up for reauthorization again. This act provides important funding and law enforcement provisions that assist victims and catch traffickers. It has received broad support from both parties in the past and now, two high profile Senators from both parties, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), have committed to passing the bill before the end of 2013.
Congress is also moving forward to combat trafficking. 2012 saw the creation of the first Senate Caucus to End Human Trafficking, created with bipartisan support. And two years ago Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) proposed a bill called the Business Transparency on Trafficking & Slavery Act that "would require companies to disclose any measures taken to identify and address instances of human trafficking, slavery, and child labor in their supply chains." These disclosures would be included in reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and be required by law to be posted publicly on company websites. While the bill is currently stalled in committee, similar measures have already been introduced and passed at the state level. With the renewed momentum in the Senate, House, and Obama Administration to address trafficking, Maloney's bill could be a key part of a new strategic effort to address the issue this year.
Congress and the federal government are not the only ones moving to address trafficking issues. According to the Polaris Project, a non-profit devoted to addressing issues of human trafficking, in 2012 47 states already had laws on the books against sex trafficking, and 49 states had laws against labor trafficking. Examples include California's Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which, similar to Maloney's proposed bill, requires certain firms to publicly disclose their efforts to eliminate trafficking and slavery from their supply chains, amongst other measures. As for 2013, so far there are already 20 states with new legislative efforts pending against human trafficking, one of which is Wyoming, a state that previously had no trafficking law on its books.
President Obama is correct to call human trafficking a form of modern-day slavery. "There are 27 million people in slavery today," according to Free the Slaves, a leading anti-slavery organization, "Many slaves have been tricked by traffickers who lure vulnerable people with false promises of good jobs or education. Some slaves are marched to work at gunpoint. Others are trapped by phony debts from unscrupulous moneylenders. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it happens nearly everywhere."
Effectively fighting this scourge through policy reform will require the types of bipartisan efforts at the executive, congressional, and state levels mentioned above, and a public willing to get involved in these efforts. My organization, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, will be using our leverage to ensure that businesses are respecting human rights, wherever they operate. This means that supporting requirements like Congresswoman Maloney's bill and those contained in the executive order are imperative.
The National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month is nearing completion, but we should ask ourselves -- what can we do to support an end to human trafficking and how can we continue to pressure our legislators and policy-makers to tackle the problem of modern-day slavery? One of the easiest answers is to support the passage of laws like the ones detailed above and to encourage your legislators to do the same.
I'll be posting more on this issue as events unfold. For now, see the various ways you can help through the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) here.