theguardian.com, Friday 27 June 2014 12.00 EDT
The Guardian's painstaking investigation into the Thai seafood sector and the US state department's annual Trafficking in Persons Report have offered arresting revelations in recent days. Not only have shrimp supply chains worldwide proved to be tainted by forced labour on Thai vessels and on soil. These reports show how businesses of all kinds are sullied by slavery – yielding $150bn in profit each year, according to the International Labour Organisation.
The reports pierce several myths. Many believe that workers who knowingly migrate without papers cannot possibly be victims. But traffickers' force, fraud, and coercion can make them just that.
Some people, conversely, assume that only undocumented migrants can be victims of human trafficking. But many legal guest workers are put so deeply into debt by recruiters, robbed of their autonomy and subjected to such harsh work that they become veritable slaves.
Many people suppose that most trafficking is for sexual exploitation (as in Thailand's own sex trade). Yet 68% of victims are exploited for labour – like in the violent seafood-processing facility in Samut Sakhon that several young Burmese women in a Thai shelter vividly described to me when I was the US anti-trafficking envoy.
And many executives assume that tracing labour conditions in their supply chains is futile and prohibitively costly. Yet if the Guardian can do it, the business community surely can – and must.
To abolish today's slavery, businesses must actively be part of the solution. Philanthropy to worthy anti-trafficking organisations is not as important as businesses living by the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath – at least do no harm.
Single companies can act alone – such as the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which carefully sources the down that goes into their winter vests and jackets.
Businesses in one sector can collaborate, as have corporations in the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, adopting norms for decent treatment of natural and human resources.
Companies can develop best practices across sectors, like Microsoft, Ford, Delta Airlines, Hilton Hotels, Coca-Cola, and others do in the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
Why would these businesses act? Because they have good hearts? Beyond the serious ethical obligations, they have tangible interests at stake. The first is reputational. Walmart has worked to improve its reputation as a corporation insensitive to worker rights – for example, stopping sourcing cotton from Uzbekistan due to forced labour – only to have Guardian reporting indicate that some of the shrimp it sells comes from forced labour.
A second interest lies with shareholders. Protecting human rights need not come at the expense of profits and shareholder dividends, but yields value to them. The multinational human resources corporation ManpowerGroup improved its credit ratings when it worked to combat manipulative recruiters and human trafficking.
Third, employees will be more active ambassadors for their brand and stay with a company if they can be proud of how it prevents the basest exploitation. The company will avoid costly vacancies, searches and new employee training.
Finally, as customers learn more and more about human trafficking, they will reward companies genuinely seeking to reduce it with their business and loyalty.
Different businesses must tailor efforts to their circumstances. Yet the common touchstone must be supply-chain transparency. Transparency represents a prudent middle ground between, on the one hand, merely voluntary codes of conduct, and, on the other hand, government regulations more likely to be intrusive than informed by genuine understanding of a particular industry.
The United Nations tapped the Harvard professor John Ruggie to develop guidelines on business obligations on human rights, which it adopted in 2011. Those guidelines call for businesses to "know and show" – to apply due diligence looking into their operations and suppliers, and to report publicly on what they find.
If they are transparent, then incentives will change for businesses. They will get credit with reputation, shareholders, employees and customers the more they explore whether their business is riding on the backs of fellow human beings who are being robbed of their freedom and dignity..
Ambassador Mark P. Lagon
Global Politics and Security Chair at Georgetown University's Master of Science in Foreign Service Program and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Human Rights at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the former US Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the US Department of State.
A young Cambodian migrant worker loads barrels on to a boat at Songkhla port, Thailand. Photograph: Chris Kelly