THE BLOG
08/21/2012 06:20 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2012

Siri, Do You Use Slaves?

It's not often that I hear my topic come up on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. The clip begins focused on recent news of Chick-fil-A boycotts based on the CEO's anti-gay-marriage stance but then slides into a broader poking-fun moment around how living our values through our purchases is downright impossible sometimes. As Jon notes that Apple has had some "labor issues," Wyatt Cenac looks at his iPhone longingly and curses, "Siri, do you use slaves?"

I have an iPhone. I feel that same tension. The numbers are seared into my head: 27 million enslaved worldwide, with just 42,000 identified last year and countless toiling in labor exploitation. The trafficked persons I have met told me things I will never forget. But I also know that given how pervasive forced labor and labor exploitation are, it is positive not only that the Apple findings came out publicly and were so widely reported, but also that Apple is taking steps to remedy the issues. Frankly, I know less about Apple's competitors and exactly how much they are doing to look for and remedy labor violations in their smartphone supply chains, which likely includes many of the same troublesome suppliers.

While being an old problem, forced labor is a relatively new issue being pushed onto the corporate radar. The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act is a small step in the direction of providing consumers with comparable information on corporate practices to eliminate forced labor in their supply chains. It affects any retailer or manufacturer doing business in California with annual worldwide revenue of more than $100 million. It requires a simple public disclosure statement on the website's homepage that describes the extent to which the retailer or manufacturer in question 1) verifies its supply chain to evaluate risk of modern slavery, 2) conducts supplier audits to verify compliance with corporate anti-slavery policies, 3) requires supplier certification of compliance, 4) develops and maintains internal policy and standards, and 5) delivers human trafficking training to its employees.

Now corporations, their attorneys, and law firms are feeling the tension. How much should they disclose to be compliant without disclosing anything that might incur liability? How will their disclosure compare against their industry competitors' disclosures? How much information do they actually have available to disclose? What more can they do in order to bolster their disclosure?

The tension may increase. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced a federal counterpart, H.R. 2759, the Business Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, building on the California Act. H.R. 2759 would require anyone submitting an annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission to provide a more detailed disclosure than the California Act. For example, the text of any policy must be included, as well as an assessment of the adequacy of suppliers' supply-chain management and procurement systems to identify risks, and details on suppliers' compliance to eliminate exploitative labor recruitment practices.

At a recent House briefing on H.R. 2759, Amy Hall, Director of Social Consciousness for Eileen Fisher, noted that since the company's inception, it has performed audits and monitored its hundreds of direct suppliers. However, it was the California Act that prompted them to go beyond the first tier of suppliers, all the way down to raw materials, where much of forced labor occurs. She said the cost was negligible and it was not any more difficult than what the company had already been doing.

This is the impact of the California Act: the not-so-subtle push for corporations to assume responsibility for everything that goes into their products, including the cotton later woven and dyed that makes its way to garment factories as well as the coltan mined and transformed into capacitors and later assembled into Wyatt Cenac's iPhone -- and mine, and yours.

For consumers, there still is not enough information to compare apples to apples or Apple to Samsung. Not all companies complied with the California Act. Additionally, the disclosures available range from short, perfunctory statements to referencing existing policies that lead you on a scavenger hunt to moving descriptions of commitments. There are provisions omitted from the California Act that could have made it easier on consumers, most notably a published list of the companies required to comply and a template disclosure to follow. But the landscape is changing rapidly, and not just in the area of the law.

The proliferation of anti-trafficking NGOs and concerned citizens is amazing to witness, as one who can remember how few people, let alone organizations, were working on it pre-2000, and they want information. A number of these organizations focus on delivering information to consumers about corporations and products and are fanning the flames of increased consumer consciousness. Slavery Footprint allows consumers to calculate how many slaves work for them based on their purchasing history. The Free2Work app allows consumers to scan a barcode and see the product manufacturer's A-F grade, along with competitors' information. These efforts are based on the scant information available, yet another risk to corporations unless they turn it to their advantage by taking a hard look at the practices behind the disclosures and the disclosures themselves.

There is great opportunity for increased market share in a seemingly new area. Call it corporate social responsibility, ethical sourcing, fair trade, or sustainable practices, but attention to forced labor within product supply chains is growing. The California Act is an invitation for corporations to distinguish themselves in yet another way from the competition.

The Global Freedom Center can help. Either in person or by webinar, the Global Freedom Center offers custom trainings by profession and industry, including retailers, manufacturers and their law firms, for a modest donation. This is the single easiest way to shore up a company's California Act disclosure regarding the extent to which employees were trained.

We have launched the 5/20 Campaign, to train 5 million professionals by the year 2020 to identify and prevent human trafficking. We focus on the professionals in the best position to either identify or prevent trafficking in the course of their daily work -- within health, education, criminal justice, social services, immigration/migration, labor/employment, media and of course the corporate sector.

The corporate sector holds prevention in their hands, touching the livelihoods and freedom of millions worldwide. I no longer see products on shelves; I see the many hands that touched them and wonder. The California Act is certainly one step in the direction of providing us answers.