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January 12, 2015
January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month
    by Robert Kropp

While business increasingly acknowledges its responsibility to help eradicate human trafficking in all its forms, more robust efforts are needed to protect the world's most vulnerable people.

In 2013, President Obama declared January to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Yesterday was Human Trafficking Awareness Day for 2015.

Without robust and enforceable international mandates, human trafficking is likely to get worse, as climate change and resource scarcity—not to mention the uniquely human capacity for the ceaseless waging of war—threaten to dramatically increase migration, especially among the world's poor and most vulnerable. “Awareness has been growing, but effective remedies are slow and uncoordinated,” Citizens for Global Solutions wrote. “These remedies often are not accessible to victims of trafficking due to gaps between setting international standards, enacting national laws, and then implementing them in a humane way.”

Because human trafficking is so often a means of economic exploitation, the responsibility of corporations—especially those whose supply chain operations occur in regions where human rights violations are all too common—to address trafficking and other human rights violations in their supply chains is urgent. One way to do so would be to outfit the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights with regulatory teeth, but the results of a recent United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights suggest that many companies would much prefer that the Principles remain voluntary.

Speaking at the Forum, Professor John Ruggie, the author of the Principles, said, “I see no intrinsic contradiction between implementing the Guiding Principles, on the one hand, and further international legalization, on the other.”

A few days before the UN Forum took place, a coalition of investors and research organizations launched the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB), which will research and rank the human rights performance of 500 of the world's largest firms from the most vulnerable industry sectors. While the initiative does not rise to the level of mandate, the Benchmark should prod corporations to outperform their peers in one of the highest profile sustainability factors.

For many years, sustainable investors have been prioritizing corporate human rights policies that specifically address human trafficking. Members of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) filed 19 shareowner resolutions relating to human trafficking during the 2014 proxy season. “Shareholders asked J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Landstar System and United Continental Holdings to adopt a human rights policy including prohibition of sexual exploitation of minors,” ICCR stated. “Con-way was asked to report on how it is implementing its ban on human trafficking internally and in its own supply chain.”

One high-profile campaign, led by ICCR member Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS), has called on companies in the transportation and hospitality sectors to enhance awareness of human sex trafficking at the Super Bowl and other major sporting events. In 2012, for example, a coalition of investors representing $58 billion in assets under management sent letters to 32 companies in advance of the Olympic Games in London, "calling for immediate and transparent actions to train staff and suppliers to recognize and avoid the trafficking of workers into slavery, to monitor their supply chains, and to examine hiring and recruitment practices."

An organization that has been especially vigilant in addressing human trafficking through its engagement with the travel and tourism industry is ECPAT-USA, which has thus far persuaded 39 US companies to sign the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct. The Code is a set of guidelines travel and tourism companies implement to put in place policies and programs to prevent and react to instances of child sex trafficking.

In her end of the year message, ECPAT's Executive Director Carol Smolenski noted that 20 years ago, there was limited attention given to the issue; for example, she wrote, “The business sector was absent from the movement, unaware of the role it could play in the battle.”

Since then, Smolenski continued, “More than 100,000 people in the travel industry have been trained. Landmark legislation has become law, such as the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 and, more recently, the Identifying and Protecting Children and Youth at Risk of Sex Trafficking Act.”

Acknowledging the the scourge of child sex trafficking is still widespread, Smolenski concluded, “In 2015, we at ECPAT-USA recommit all our energy to the struggle for every child’s right to grow up free from commercial sexual exploitation. Personally, I remain optimistic.”


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