Slavery still exists. Here’s how we can help end it.
The United Nations General Assembly is officially back in session, as its new president — María Fernanda Espinosa — calls for equality, inclusion and justice for all. Citizens around the world are fed up with widespread sexism and racism that should have ended centuries ago. And basic human rights remain at risk — with women and girls making up 71 percent of modern slavery’s victims.
Modern slavery can take many forms, including child and forced labor, human trafficking and even buying and selling humans in public markets. According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, approximately $144 billion of apparel, mobile phones and other items linked to modern slavery practices are imported into the United States annually.
China, India and Vietnam were listed as top exporters of apparel and accessories tied to modern slavery — with China and Malaysia as the primary source countries for consumer technology products connected to slave labor. These are goods that now sit on store shelves, wait to be shipped from warehouses, and appear in homes and offices in G20 countries around the world.
Of course, this is not the first time in US history that retailers and consumers of clothing have profited from international trade in goods made by slave labor. Cotton produced by enslaved African Americans flooded the international market in the 1800s and set the United States on its path to becoming a world economic power. As slave-based capitalism provided cotton to textile mills producing fabric for apparel and accessories, slave owners traded the humanity and dignity of African Americans for profits, one life at a time.
We cannot go back and change the course of slavery in the United States. But responsible businesses and informed consumers can take steps to help eradicate modern slavery from fashion, tech and other industries’ international supply chains and trading partners.
There are laws and regulations in place in the United States to prevent the sourcing of goods connected to slave labor. US Customs and Border Protection is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 — providing for the seizure of imported merchandise produced or manufactured by child or forced labor. In 2010, California passed the Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which requires large retailers and manufacturers there to disclose on their websites certain information regarding supply chain transparency and “efforts to eradicate human trafficking and slavery within their supply chains.” The United Nations and the International Labour Organization also have long-standing principles denouncing slavery and servitude. Despite these measures, goods linked to modern slavery continue to enter the United States.
Businesses — including fashion brands, retailers and technology companies — invest heavily in innovation and in partnerships at every stage from lab to market. Eradicating modern slavery from a company’s supply chain should be a priority with obvious benefits worthy of these innovation dollars. Companies investing in innovation centers must leverage cutting-edge technology — from blockchain and artificial intelligence to user-centered platforms — to map and monitor their supply chains. This is not just the right thing to do ethically, it also helps to protect brands from PR nightmares tied to social injustice and slavery.
As consumers, we all have the ability to assess a brand’s commitment to transparency in eliminating modern slavery from their supply chain. The Federal Trade Commission requires most clothing and textile products to be labeled with a country of origin, but the label does not guarantee that a particular shirt or scarf was not produced by slave labor. For that, consumers must delve deeper. Some companies have committed to industry pledges. Others are going further, building transparency into their DNA. If shoppers are not satisfied with a company’s supply chain record, other brands are just a click away.
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that we are all “born free and equal in dignity and rights.” But unfortunately, we continue to see an attack on integrity and equality around the world.
As the UN General Assembly gets under way, the General Assembly must stand firm to its goals of promoting gender equality and human rights. Government at all levels, individual citizens and corporations must also be a part of making change.
The true cost of any new global policy or partnership may ultimately be measured not in dollars, but in the human lives that are lost to modern slavery.
Kenya Wiley is a former counsel and senior policy adviser for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She is the founder and CEO of the Fashion Innovation Alliance, focused on public policy, social justice and innovation in fashion tech and beauty tech.