The Business of Human Trafficking

Rallying businesses against trafficking

First published in The Business Times on 18 April 2015


Trafficking can only be combated comprehensively within a broader framework of seeking to eliminate extremely abusive and exploitative practices in general. 

By John Gee

Last November, Singapore’s Parliament passed the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act. While it contains provisions for the prosecution of traffickers and the protection of trafficked people, all those who have worked on this problem would agree that the best response to trafficking would be to prevent it happening in the first place.

One potentially productive approach to this is to enlist the co-operation of businesses. Human trafficking is itself a big business, estimated by Interpol last year to have a value of US$39 billion annually, but much of this illicit trade depends on finding buyers who are or who partner legitimate businesses. 

It is only profitable for two reasons. 

Firstly, there are people who are desperate to earn a living and ready to take a chance on what they are invariably promised will be a good job. Disempowered through violence, indebtedness or an illegal status, they become available to work as cheap labour in  conditions of gross exploitation.

Secondly, there are individuals and businesses that want to pay as little as possible for labour and either knowingly connive in trafficking, or decide that they would rather not know about what that means for the fellow human beings who work for them, directly or indirectly. 

It does not help that trafficking may be hard to recognise in circumstances where the legal employment of migrant workers in severely disadvantageous conditions and at low pay is not unusual. Trafficking can only be combated comprehensively within a broader framework of seeking to eliminate extremely abusive and exploitative practices in general. 

On the face of it, businesses that have a supply chain that includes companies that use trafficked labour have no interest in opposing trafficking. After all, they stand to pay more for goods and services if they do. 

Yet, the question is not so simple. Becoming known as a company that connives at forms of gross labour exploitation can harm a business, as the Western high street clothes chains that bought from the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh found out, after the building collapsed and killed more than 1,100 workers. The disaster produced strong disquiet among customers.

On March 17 this year, Charoen Pokphand Foods PCL (CPF), Thailand’s largest meat and animal-feed producer that also depends on exports for a sizeable part of its business, announced that it had introduced measures to counter labour abuse and that there was no illegal labour in its supply chain in the shrimp industry. This followed the suspension of orders from some customers following reports on trafficking of Burmese and Cambodian men into the Thai fishing industry, some of which referred to CPF’s stake in the sector and the downgrading of Thailand to Tier 3 in the US State Department’s annual trafficking survey. CPF cooperated with US firm Underwriters Laboratories in order to check on fishmeal factories and boats that supplied it.  

There are already many businesses that go to some lengths to check that those supplying them with goods and services do not employ workers in conditions of squalor, danger and gross exploitation. Some anti-trafficking activists believe that this provides a basis for thinking that substantial sectors of business can be persuaded to take a firm stand against trafficking, and they are seeking to enlist support in Singapore.

Daryll Delgado is a programme manager for Verité Southeast Asia (VSEA), a US-based non-profit organisation that operates at an international level to research and monitor labour rights abuses. 

She identifies unethical recruitment practices and the charges workers are made to pay when they seek jobs in other countries as a major factor in their exploitation. 

She said: “Workers should not have to pay for work or service obtained from them, it should be the other way around. The business sector is in the best position to positively influence the fates of millions of women and men who leave their homes and families, mortgage their properties and their children’s futures, for a job that may pay enough to cover their basic needs, but will never actually compensate them for the true and irrecoverable cost of migration. 

“Business should invest in the ethical recruitment and fair hiring of migrant workers: Strictly implement a ‘no-fees to workers’ policy, take full control of the whole recruitment and hiring process, conduct due diligence of their labour suppliers, provide workers decent working and living conditions, give them access to communication and grievance mechanisms, protect them from discrimination, and let them enjoy their basic rights to freedom of movement and association.”

In March this year, the Singapore Committee for UN Women held a three-day conference aimed at mobilising support among businesses for efforts to combat trafficking. Biz@TIP was organised with the backing of the national Inter-agency Task Force on Trafficking in Persons. 

It focussed on three sectors – hospitality, travel and tourism; global supply;  and technology. There was not a big turn-out, but it was encouragingly higher than for a similar venture last year and yielded strong expressions of intent from some participants.

One approach to businesses is simply to argue that shunning trafficking and the products of trafficking is the right thing to do, but participants in Biz@TIP argued that there can also be real benefits to businesses in doing so. 

For companies that have a high public profile or need to maintain a good image to attract customers (as in tourism, for example) there is a good case for being seen to treat employees decently and avoid suspicions of conniving at exploitative labour practices. Likewise, sellers of well known clothing brands can ill-afford to have their products associated with wretched employment conditions, as in the Rana Plaza case. 

Some sectors of the public will make their feelings known or simply refuse to give their custom to businesses that behave badly. That tendency is likely to grow, with an increase in public concern with human-rights issues, and a rise in incomes in a number of East and South-east Asian markets that will make significant sectors of the public willing to spend a little more for ethical reasons.

Another factor in favour of taking a stand against trafficking and against a business approach that emphasises cheap labour is the evidence that, in some sectors at least – perhaps not coincidentally, those targeted by the Biz@TIP conference – well-motivated workers who can use their initiative and contribute to a team effort can be more of an asset than under-paid staff who have no incentive to do more than the bare minimum they need to draw a salary or avoid a scolding.

Concerned companies can take a stand on trafficking first of all, by reviewing their own practices and making sure that they observe good basic labour standards. 

Secondly, they can insist on agreements with potential partners to observe minimum labour standards  as a condition of signing or renewing a contract with them. 

Thirdly, they need to check on compliance – including whether their partners themselves maintain decent standards, but draw upon the services and products of suppliers who do not.

They need not be modest about making public the steps they have taken; by doing so, they will not only be assuring customers of their high standards, but helping to create a climate in which they are taken as the norm. #stoptraffickingsg #thebusinessofhumantrafficking

The writer is head of research at the migrant workers’ group Transient Workers Count Too



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