Big business fights human trafficking

April 11, 2013: 12:36 PM ET
eileen fisher trafficking
Workers at this Eileen Fisher factory in China get training on how to spot unfair labor recruiters, unsafe working conditions and other issues related to human trafficking.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

Once almost exclusively a problem tackled by governments and do-gooder organizations, corporations are beginning to take an active role in combating human trafficking and unfair labor practices.

At Delta (DAL), the airline recently began training its employees to look for signs people are being trafficked.

Citing security concerns, Delta wouldn't elaborate on what those signs might be, but outside experts said it could include reporting people not in physical possession of their travel documents -- a telltale sign someone is traveling against their will. It could also include the reporting of people frequently traveling in groups to destinations known to cater to adults looking for underage sex.

Delta is part of the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, a group formed late last year pledging action on the issue and including such heavyweights as Ford (F), Coca-Cola (KO) and Exxon Mobil (XOM).

Apple (AAPL), which has drawn fire for labor violations at subcontractor plants in China, has been working for the past several years with third party auditors in an effort to improve working conditions at the facilities that make its gadgets.

For the past three years Apple has worked with Amherst, Mass.-based Verite to find out how the people at its partners' plants are treated.

Related: Pimps hit social networks to recruit underage sex workers

Employing a team of a dozen or so investigators based out of the Philippines, Verite sends its staff to factories around Asia, interviewing workers and getting a feel for life in the factories. For Apple, Verite is looking specifically for cases where workers have paid labor recruiters more than a month's wages to secure a job -- a practice many companies are trying to discourage.

Dan Viderman, Verite's CEO, said it is common for unscrupulous labor recruiters to demand 20 months in wages from uneducated workers in rural areas for a shot at a two year job in a far off city. To get the money, workers will often borrow from family members, put up homes or farms as collateral, or promise to pay the money once they earn it.

It's this debt bondage, Viderman said, that renders workers powerless in the face of long hours, unsafe conditions or sexual harassment.

Apple now requires its subcontractors to refund workers who report paying more than a month's wage to a labor recruiter, thus removing this debt burden. Since 2008, the company said its subcontractors have refunded over $13 million to workers. Nearly half of those payments were in 2012 alone.

"Apple has really set the standard for this," said Viderman.

Verite is also working with Wal-Mar (WMT) on labor issues related to its U.S. food operations. Other companies making strides in the human rights arena include Microsoft (MSFT) and the staffing agency Manpower (MAN), which have both developed online tools to educate workers on labor rights issues.

One company that often comes up as a leader in fighting human trafficking is clothing maker Eileen Fisher. For over a decade the firm has run training programs at its factories overseas. The training is for managers and workers alike, and includes ways to spot unfair labor recruiters, unsafe working conditions and the grievance process for addressing these issues.

More recently, the firm has begun mobile phone-based surveys of its workers in India and Peru. Luna Lee, the company's human rights specialist, said the surveys are anonymous and encourage workers to be more honest. They are also a good way to compare conditions across countries.

Related: Foxconn's China workers get more union rights

Last year the company started a video contest where workers submit stories about their lives -- be it their daily working and home routines, their hopes for the future or simply their thoughts on something. The videos are designed to humanize what are otherwise mostly faceless laborers. The winners were shown to everyone that submitted an entry.

"There's a lack of confidence among the workers," said Lee, who's based in New York but travels frequently to the company's overseas factories. "When they won, quite a few of them said 'I never thought what I produced would be worth anything.'"

Bringing manufacturing jobs back home

Experts say social pressure following a few high profile sweatshop cases is partly what's motivating companies to take action. But they also credit a 2010 California law requiring big companies to disclose steps they are taking to identify human trafficking in their supply chain with prodding firms to be more proactive.

None of this is to suggest the problem of human trafficking is even close to being solved.

In its latest report, the International Labor Organization estimates at least 20.9 million people worldwide are victims of forced labor.

Nor does it suggest that most companies are doing enough.

"Most of the movement has come from a few sectors," said Mark Lagon, a professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and a former anti-human trafficking ambassador at the State Department. "I don't think that business has gone far enough to date."

But it does suggest that with the public paying attention, and maybe a little help from lawmakers, progress can be made.

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