Modern-Day Slavery: Alive and Well

Author: 
Marc Gunther Contributing editor at Fortune

Modern-day slavery is not just about sex workers or poor people in faraway places.

Some farmworkers in the U.S., for all practical purposes, work as slaves. Laborers with few or no rights, working under inhumane conditions, typically far home, have produced such products as blueberries, organic milk, personal computers or cell phones and garments imported from India, a new report says.

Consider:

An estimated 12 to 27 million people are victims of slavery, and other forms of forced labor around the world. In the United States alone, 10,000 or more people are being forced to work at any given time.

The report, called Help Wanted: Hiring, Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery in the Global Economy (PDF for download, here), was published by Verite, a non-profit based in Amherst, Mass., that monitors and reports on labor rights abuses around the world. (It was funded by Humanity United, a nonprofit focused on peace and human rights started and chaired by Pam Omidyar.) Over the years, Verite has helped identify and clean up the supply chains of such global brands as Timberland, Gap, Levi Strauss, Apple, Disney and HP. I met with Verite's executive director, Dan Viederman, last week in Washington to talk about the report, and what can be done to deal with slavery.
Dan Viederman

Dan, who is 46, explained to me that Verite has begun a initiative called Well Made to help companies, governments, investors and advocates deal with modern-day slavery. Companies, for examples, are given sets of questions to put to their suppliers. Shareholders are advised to bring pressure on companies they own.

Here it must be said that today's slaves are not the equivalent of those in 19th century America; in theory, at least, they have legal rights, at least in theory. In fact, many of the stories in the report come from workers who managed to escape dire conditions, on their own or with help.

But these modern-day slaves, who can be found in such places as Taiwan, the Persian Gulf, India, Malaysia and, yes, here in the U.S. of A., do have some experiences in in common with the American slaves who picked cotton in the antebellum South: They typically work far from where they grew up, they were trafficked from their homes to their workplaces by labor brokers (slave ships in the old days), and they don't have the freedom or organize or look for work elsewhere.

This makes it relatively easy to uncover forced labor.

"The presence of foreign migrant workers is a significant indicator of exploitative labor conditions," Dan told me. Many employers like to bring in workers from abroad. "You get a cheaper and more compliant workforce if you bring in people who don't understand their legal rights and can't turn to social support systems," he said.

Because the migrant workers frequently pay recruitment and transportation fees to get jobs in faroff places, they can find themselves in what's called "debt bondage." They are bound to their new employer, sometimes because they need the money to pay debt, other times because they have traveled on a work visa that ties the migrant to a single employer.

Some labor brokers endeavor to act responsibly--the global company Manpower Inc. is an industry leader--but many are unscrupulous. "It's by an large and unregulated industry," Dan said.

The Verite report, which is extensive, looks at four sectors and locales:

the migration of adults from India to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) States of the Middle East for work in construction, infrastructure and the service sector; the migration of children and juveniles from the Indian interior to domestic apparel production hubs; the migration of adults from Guatemala, Mexico and Thailand to work in U.S. agriculture; and the migration of adults from the Philippines, Indonesia and Nepal to the Information Technology sector in Malaysia and Taiwan.

Verite's Well Made website puts a human face on the problem. Here's an example of a worker who was trafficked from Guatemala to Georgia to Connecticut:

VeriteCardsFernando

Fortunately, some governments and companies are paying attention. The U.S. State Department this month published its own report finding that more than 12 million people worldwide are victims of "trafficking in persons" -- trapped in forced labor, bonded labor or prostitution. If you read deep into Apple's corporate responsibility report, you find this dense but revealing passage:

Some of our suppliers work with third-party labor agencies to source workers from other countries. These agencies, in turn, may work through multiple subagencies: in the hiring country, the workers' home country, and, in some cases, all the way back in the worker's home village.

By the time the worker has paid all fees across these agencies, the total cost may equal many months' wages and exceed legal limits--and many workers need to incur significant debt to pay these fees. Apple's Code has always strictly prohibited all forms of involuntary labor. As such, we classify recruitment fee overcharges as a core violation of voluntary labor rights, and we require each supplier to reimburse overpaid fees. As a result of our audits and corrective actions, foreign workers have been reimbursed more than $2.2 million in recruitment fee overcharges over the past two years.

To Apple's credit, it has not only required its suppliers to reimburse workers but issued a "standard for Prevention of Involuntary Labor, which limits recruitment fees to the equivalent of one month's net wages."

But Dan tells me: "Only a handful of companies are now paying attention to the problems of migrant workers."

Sad to say, modern-day slavery can be very profitable. Labor brokers make a good living. The employers get a docile workforce and essentially outsource the job of recruiting and hiring people. Workers also can benefit, to a degree. Today's New York Times has an excellent story about the impact of global migration which says, among other things, that

Migrants sent home $317 billion last year -- three times the world's total foreign aid. In at least seven countries, remittances account for more than a quarter of the gross domestic product.

Of course, if the workers had the freedom to move from one employer to another, or to organize themselves, they could obtain or negotiate higher wages and send even more money home.

The bottom line is that lots of the things we consume and enjoy at low prices exact a high cost on others who are out of sight and out of mind.

Disclosure: My wife Karen Schneider recently joined the board of Verite, but since I've written about the organization's work before (see this from 2006 and this from 2008), I see no reason to stop now.

See Marc's article at Huffington Post here.