01/16/2013 12:15 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2013

It's Human Trafficking Prevention Month, But Is Awareness Enough?

With President Obama's proclamation of January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, public awareness efforts are being conducted nationwide. When there are approximately 27 million people enslaved in the world, we can hardly ignore such a pressing human rights issue and awareness is an important response. But even more troubling, only 42,000 of the 27 million enslaved were identified last year -- less than one percent. Twelve years ago, the United States first enacted modern laws to address modern slavery, or human trafficking. Since then, awareness campaigns worldwide have brought attention to human trafficking. But to shrink the enormous gap between those enslaved and those who have been identified, it's now time to transform that awareness into action.

Globally, 78 percent of those enslaved are in forced labor. According to the Department of Labor, they are extracting, harvesting or producing different goods in countries worldwide. Therefore slavery is nearly inevitable in the supply chains of the products we buy. The good news is that not all companies are shying away from this issue. In fact, the last several months have seen the emergence of several new efforts, including the Global Business Coalition Against Trafficking and the Walkfree Pledge, to encourage brands and corporations to take stand against slavery.

In November 2012, a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions Factory in Bangladesh killed 112 workers in a garment factory that lacked adequate outside fire exits or sprinklers. The factory, which supplied products to brands including Walmart and Sears, had undergone social audits. Social audits, common in the apparel and other industries, allow internal or external parties to review particular practices, including safety and other labor standards. In addition, corporations sign on to voluntary codes of conduct that in theory prevent such fires. The fire has raised some important questions about whether social auditing and voluntary codes of compliance really work. Planned social audits can be less effective when factory leadership forewarn workers to prepare responses to on-site auditors and even create a separate set of books for auditors. Voluntary codes of compliance are not enforceable and also can lack the requisite depth to develop meaningful responses for auditors and in other corporate policy development.

Modern slavery, or human trafficking, is compelled service, be it physical or psychological. The challenge is that most slavery involves a psychological coercion, invisible to the eye. The physical signs are easier to spot: barbed wire, locks, and chains. Coercion in particular makes trafficked persons distrust almost everyone, preventing them from seeking help and sharing details of the trafficking. This distrust therefore prevents trafficked people from being identified and connected with services and protection. While there is no formula or demographic, traffickers typically target migrants, the disabled and those in desperate circumstances including poverty, gender inequity, political instability and conflict. Understanding these circumstances not only helps us to recognize why a trafficked person may not self-identify, but also to overcome the many barriers in offering the person meaningful alternatives to remaining in the trafficking situation.

In the corporate context, identifying slavery becomes much more difficult. To begin with, there is a wide discrepancy in how supply chain experts perceive human trafficking, often applying the narrowest definition. Auditors may not spot the trafficked person who is compelled because of a recruitment debt unrelated to the factory manager. They may also not identify the worker subtly threatened by a factory manager but who works or travels off site and has physical mobility. Without a clear understanding of the complexities to human trafficking, even brands at the forefront of fighting this issue may not always have the expertise to identify and prevent slavery among all their suppliers.

Supply chains can be a convoluted maze. In fact, both Sears and Walmart stated that they were unaware that Tazreen was subcontracting with the brands' primary suppliers at the time of the fire. While corporations stepping up to address human trafficking deserve our applause, the solution to modern slavery lies not in these positions but their subsequent action. Brands already looking beyond voluntary codes of compliance have a unique opportunity to reassess whether their social auditing processes and corporate policies are designed to actually identify and prevent human trafficking.

With 27 million people enslaved in the world, basic human trafficking awareness is insufficient to make a dent in such an enormous human rights issue. At its best, awareness sparks action. Corporate leadership is becoming more aware of the issue and its inherent risks to their brands. From there, supply chain professionals are perfectly positioned to transform awareness into action. Voluntary codes of compliance and the status quo social auditing strategies just aren't enough to truly address human trafficking. Meaningful solutions can be achieved only by understanding the considerable complexities often overlooked in human trafficking and implementing comprehensive tools to identify and prevent it. True impact lies with brands that lead the private sector and their industries not just with positions, but also with action-driven policies.

This month, we applaud increased awareness, but as we move forward, let that awareness spur action for the 27 million enslaved worldwide.

The Global Freedom Center offers human trafficking subject matter expertise and training to supply chain experts and corporate employees. To schedule a consultation or training, contact