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A Hidden Lack of Humanity: How Forced Labor and Modern Day Slavery Permeate Supply Chains and Instigate Environmental Degradation Around the World

By Emily Rogers and Jacqui Vogel

This blog post was written by students as part of a new spring course and public seminar series, “Topics in International Justice, Rights and the Environment” (ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118) taught at Stanford University in Spring Quarter 2021. This class was designed and offered in response to a growing demand for environmental justice education at Stanford, specifically on the international scale.

Forced labor and environmental degradation are immense global issues with convoluted and surprisingly intertwined root causes. The driving forces behind human rights abuses and ecological destruction within global supply chains can be linked to the ubiquitous roles that capitalism and discriminations play in our modern political economy. Certain sectors are particularly susceptible to these labor and human rights abuses due to the vulnerability of the workers they employ. The commercial seafood industry is one such sector, where the mobile, undocumented, and intentionally misled labor force is subjected to some of the most inhumane working conditions of any industry on the planet.

On May 10, 2021, a panel of experts convened to discuss the complex drivers and global implications of forced labor. Martha Mendoza is a two-time Pulitzer Prize and Emmy winner whose investigations into slavery in the Thai seafood industry led to the release of over 2,000 slaves, institgated new legislation within the U.S. government, and heralded an increased desire for supply chain accountability around the world. Jessie Brunner is the Director of Human Trafficking Research and a Senior Program Manager at Stanford’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, working at the nexus of environmental and social topics as they relate to human rights and anti-trafficking. Maria Clara Rodrigues is an undergraduate Economics student at Stanford who is exploring the role of policy, data, and institutions in efforts to address human trafficking and socioeconomic inequality in her home country of Brazil.

During the panel, the speakers highlighted the immense difficulties associated with identifying, addressing, and preventing incidents of forced labor within our increasingly complex global supply chains. Martha Mendoza discussed her investigative work on the small fishing island of Benjina, Indonesia, and the convoluted tracking that was required to unveil the connections between slave labor in Indonesia and supply networks across the globe. Jessie Brunner delved into her work on the connections between overfishing and labor abuses within the fishing industry, while highlighting the importance of centering worker voices and bringing local communities into attempts to address the problem of forced labor. Clara Rodrigues elucidated the problems associated with human trafficking in Brazil, revealing how political connections and financial considerations significantly impact the treatment of employers on the “Dirty List,” composed of companies or individuals with known histories of perpetrating cases of human trafficking in Brazil.

Several readings set the stage for this panel, including an article from the Journal of Supply Chain Management, as well as a 14-article series published by the Associated Press. The first article, “The Role of Supply Chains in the Global Business of Forced Labor” (G. Lebaron, 2021) explores the causes of forced labor from both a supply and demand perspective. There were three key takeaways on the business of forced labor and supply chain management:

  1. Forced labor is not random within the supply chain, and is traceable to a root cause
  2. Forced labor is hard to isolate because workers frequently move in and out of forced labor situations
  3. Buyer-led governance is failing to create worksites free of forced labor

The Associated Press series, “Seafoods from Slaves: An AP investigation helps free slaves in the 21st century” includes 14 articles published between March 2015 to July 2016 which detail the prevalence of forced labor in fisheries, rescue efforts to free forced laborers, policy and public reactions to knowledge of this forced labor, and life after slavery for formerly imprisoned workers. This series, along with the work of panelist Martha Mendoza, led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves.

This week’s topic has several connections to broader course themes. First, similarly to other topics in the course, the content elevated an issue often missing from conversations about environmental harm and climate change. Second, forced labor on land and at sea dives into a human-environmental system that leads to the unfair treatment of vulnerable groups or individuals. In this case, the most economically vulnerable men are often the ones who are tricked into going overseas and joining a forced labor operation.

This seminar demonstrated how forced labor and modern slavery are global problems with very localized implications. As we heard from our panel of speakers, every level of intervention will be necessary to address the problem of forced labor within global supply chains and, by extension, to address the environmental degradation that accompanies these human and labor rights abuses. International organizations have a responsibility to lead the conversation and bring new actors into the fold. National governments need to craft policies and regional collaborations to address these problems at the source. And private corporations need to increase traceability throughout their supply chains to increase accountability to the people, communities, and consumers who are impacted by their actions.

Two topics are closely related to the discussion this week. The first is unfit factory conditions, such as in the case of Foxconn manufacturing for Apple. Foxconn saw a high rate of employee suicide due to the tough nature of the work and living conditions, yet Apple largely denied responsibility for these problems. Similar to forced labor in fisheries, the need for Foxconn to maintain tight margins led to harmful working conditions for their employees. Second, unsustainable fishing is partly responsible for forced labor at sea. Fishing companies must keep employee costs exceptionally low given overfishing and decreased catch potential.

Works Cited
Note: * = required readings for ENVRES 215A/HUMRTS 118 students

Clark, T.P. & Longo, S.B. (2021). Global labor value chains, commodification, and the socioecological structure of severe exploitation. A case study of the Thai seafood sector. The Journal of Peasant Studies.

*Environmental Justice Foundation. (2019). Blood and Water: Human rights abuses in the global seafood industry.

*Lebaron, G. (2021). The Role of Supply Chains in the Global Business of Forced Labor. Journal of Supply Chain Management, 57(2), 29–42.

*The Associated Press. (2015). Seafoods from Slaves: An AP investigation helps free slaves in the 21st century.

Additional reading on Foxconn’s factory conditions can be found at the following links:

Additional reading on overfishing and unsustainable fishing can be found at the following links:

Jacqui Vogel is a coterm student in the Earth Systems program, pursuing an M.S. degree with a focus on oceans, climate change, and international environmental governance.

Emily Rogers is an MBA & MS in Environment & Resources student through the E-IPER program (land use track). She holds a B.A. and B.E. in environmental engineering from Dartmouth College.

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EJ @ Stanford

EJ @ Stanford

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