The business of human trafficking

08.11.2011 11:24

At some point in a company's supply chain, it’s likely they are using products, supplies or services that involve trafficked people, says one senior company executive. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian


Companies often use complex global procurement systems to deny their part in human trafficking but what can responsible businesses do to address the issue? 

Seven years ago, David Arkless took a call from the first lady of an African state. She wanted to know what his company was doing about human trafficking. His answer was blunt: "What human trafficking?"

The question prompted him to investigate. The figures proved startling. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, more than 2.4 millionpeople are being exploited by traffickers at any one time. Some campaign groups suggest the annual number of victims could be as high as 27 million.

"There are more slaves today than in any time in human history", says Arkless, who heads up corporate and government affairs for Manpower, a global employment services firm.

He's become something of an evangelist on the subject. As board president of the campaign group End Human Trafficking Now, he helped push through the Athens Ethical Principles – a seven-step charter designed to stamp out the use of trafficked labour by companies and other organisations.

Arkless' attempts to win over other senior executives are met with mixed responses, however. While most companies lament the problem, he says, they fail to see what it has to do with them.

They're wrong, the Manpower executive maintains. And he tells them as much: "At some point in your supply chain or partner's supply chain, it's likely that you are using products, supplies or services that involve people who have been trafficked."

The human trafficking industry is now estimated to be worth £32bn per year. If correct, that would make it more lucrative than narcotics. The reason for the traffickers' 'success' is simple, according to Baroness Mary Goudie, a leading advocate on the subject: "Unlike drugs, you can use people more than once."

Those not destined for the sex trade find their way into labour-intensive industries, such as agriculture and low-skilled manufacturing.

For Goudie, companies are all too often wilfully ignorant of the issue, using the pretext of complex global procurement systems to deny direct responsibility.

"We know that the household names cannot be paying people properly to produce at these prices", she argues. "And they know it too."

Aidan McQuade, director at UK campaign group Anti-Slavery International, goes one step further. Trafficking isn't on the corporate agenda, he maintains, "because [companies] think they can probably get away with it".

Not all businesses are turning a blind eye. The Athens Ethical Principles now counts around 12,500 signatories, a number of whom are companies. The question facing corporations is what should they do?.

The solutions to trafficking appear almost as opaque as the problem itself. To date, most businesses engaged on the issue have concentrated on awareness-raising. The Freedom Project, an initiative by US broadcaster CNN to televise accounts of modern day slavery, is perhaps the best example.

Publicity is a good start, but more must be done, Arkless argues. Companies need to see the issue as a "complete closed system" and develop integrated solutions for each phase of the problem.

The criminal element must clearly be addressed. Working more closely with police, border authorities and other government agencies, companies can proactively help clamp down on trafficking networks. First in line should be ferry companies, airlines and other firms directly involved in transporting people.

However, curbing abusive practices within companies' supply chains presents a tougher task. For companies that are vertically-managed, a mixture of carrots (such as a 'trafficking free' label) and sticks (like factory inspections and fines) could go a long way to ensuring compliance among key suppliers and sub-suppliers.

The problem of compliance occurs further down the line, however, when suppliers multiply into hundreds if not thousands of smaller firms. Social audits are an important deterrent, but they can only achieve so much.

Alongside audits, businesses should run preventative anti-trafficking programmes together with local unions and labour rights groups, says McQuade.

The final cog in the system – the supply of trafficked persons – represents the toughest challenge of all. Many of the victims of trafficking are vulnerable individuals, often marginalised in their home nations for economic, racial or religious reasons. The trafficker's promise of a better life abroad can sound sorely tempting.

The root causes behind the supply of trafficked people run deep. Manpower hopes a programme it is running in Colombia can make a small indent; the aim is to assist abandoned and at-risk young people by providing counselling, training and employment support. McQuade would like to see such initiatives massively scaled up, with corporations providing 0.7% of pre-tax profits for remediation and prevention projects.

An injection of this sort of money would serve as a rallying call to governments to also begin prioritising the eradication of trafficking and related labour abuses.

As yet, however, human trafficking remains off most corporate radars. "Companies treat it as a PR issue that needs to be managed rather than a human rights abuse that needs to be addressed," laments McQuade.

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