Federal Contractors and Consumers Target of President's Speech on Human Trafficking

Written with my colleague and Global Freedom Center co-founder Kavitha Sreeharsha

Following the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Obama in a speech announced new efforts by the United States to address modern slavery. In an historic speech devoted entirely to the topic of modern slavery, the President framed human trafficking not with old rhetoric of criminals and victims, but one of corporate and consumer responsibility. In a bold move to demonstrate the White House commitment to identifying and preventing human trafficking in corporate supply chains, the President signed an Executive Order that all taxpayers and federal contractors and subcontractors should note. Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking In Persons In Federal Contracts applies to defense, mining, agriculture, food services, manufacturing and everything in between.

The Executive Order reminds us that the U.S. Government is "the single largest purchaser of goods and services in the world." Put in other terms, the U.S. Government is the world's biggest consumer; therefore, the Executive Order is an announcement that the U.S. Government is flexing its consumer purchasing muscles. The ripple effect that this will cause throughout the corporate sector cannot be underestimated because, with enforcement, corporations that are federal contractors will be required to identify and prevent slavery in their supply chains.

The Executive Order builds on a largely unenforced Federal Acquisition Regulation clause already in place, but it gets more specific and adds teeth. It prohibits federal contractors from engaging in fraudulent recruiting or misrepresenting the terms of the job or housing, charging recruitment fees, and confiscating identification documents including a passport. For all contracts of $500,000 or greater or to be performed abroad, contractors and subcontractors must submit a compliance plan and post it publicly on their website. The plan must detail recruitment, wages, housing, an employee awareness program, and an employee reporting process. Federal contractors will be required to comply with investigations and audits. Additionally, government contracting officers must be trained to review and enforce and, overall, federal contractors must be able to identify and prevent human trafficking.

There are socially responsible companies that have taken on this issue and are mapping their supply chains, monitoring and auditing, identifying and remedying. The President even announced the newly formed Global Business Coalition Against Trafficking, which consists of Carlson, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, ExxonMobil, LexisNexis, ManpowerGroup, Microsoft, NXP and Travelport; all of which are committed to this issue and encouraging their industry peers to join. This is a step in the right direction.

An estimated 27 million people are enslaved globally, yet last year only an approximate 42,000 were identified. If less than 1% of trafficked persons are being identified, something is terribly wrong. These numbers illustrate the surreptitious nature of modern slavery - workers in factories who say nothing and know little about their rights; workers too scared to tell anyone about their recruiting debt; and falsely recruited workers who silently endure threats and isolation. Federal contractors, indeed all of the corporate sector, need to know what to look for and how to prevent it.

But the President also urged consumers to learn more and to insist that the products they purchase are free of slavery, effectively asking consumers to do their part so that companies are compelled to identify and prevent slavery in their supply chains. That learning can start with the newly updated and released U.S. Department of Labor's List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor, because modern slavery is in our homes. Many products that we use on a daily basis are tainted by slavery at the point of either raw materials extraction and refinement or manufacturing. That means our phones, computers, toys, garments, food and more all may have been touched by a slave's hands.

President Obama has underscored that the prevention of slavery is the responsibility of government and the private sector and consumers. As a result, he reframed the issue into one not of us and them but us - period. We, the collective we, are the solution to human trafficking.

To learn more about human trafficking and our corporate trainings, go to www.GlobalFreedomCenter.org.