Op-ed: Businesses can contribute to the fight against human trafficking

Date Publish: 
Monday, July 2, 2018
The most successful and competitive businesses are those that are proactive in tackling slavery and exploitation in their daily operations. Photo: IOM

02/07/2018 - The recent upgrading of Thailand’s status to Tier 2 of the US Trafficking in Person (TIP) report is a positive development that will be welcome by many. While Thailand has yet to fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, the report recognizes the significant counter-trafficking efforts the Royal Thai Government has undertaken.

Human trafficking and related crimes, increasingly described as modern slavery, is an area of concern not just for Thailand but also the Greater Mekong subregion and beyond. While estimates on its scale vary, we know a large number of individuals are affected globally.

According to the most recent Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, jointly produced by IOM, the UN Migration Agency, the International Labour Organization, and the Walk Free Foundation, approximately 40 million people around the world were victims of modern slavery in 2016. Migrants comprise almost a quarter of victims and as identified in the TIP report, are disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, some of which may involve trafficking.

For Thailand, it is likely that counter-trafficking efforts will continue to intensify with the goal of achieving Tier 1 status. But while the role of combating human trafficking and related crimes has traditionally been ascribed to government and civil society, there is increasing consensus that partnerships with other non-traditional stakeholders, particularly the private sector, is essential for efforts to be truly successful.

Most aspirant migrants move to earn better livelihoods. However, existing migration channels tend to involve costly or complicated processes. This encourages migrants to cross borders with the help of smugglers and seek jobs with employers willing to turn a blind eye to their lack of documentation. Such irregular movements put migrants at a higher risk with IOM research suggesting that trafficking in the Greater Mekong subregion is closely connected with irregular migration.

The cycle of exploitation can start even before a migrant even leaves his or her home. Due to a lack of knowledge about their rights, migrants are vulnerable to being tricked or pressured by unethical recruitment brokers. They may be given misleading information about their employment conditions and be forced to pay exorbitant recruitment fees, leading to situations of debt bondage.

Once at their workplace, migrants are often forced to work in hazardous conditions and are subjected to movement restrictions. In extreme cases, they are subjected to abuse and forced labour, working long hours for little or no pay.

In light of these trends, it is clear that businesses can and should play a role in the fight against human trafficking and modern day slavery. As employers, they directly influence the terms in which migrants are hired and employed, as well as the conditions they work in.

In recent years, the business case for companies to pay close attention to labour exploitation, including human trafficking as its most egregious form, has strengthened. Businesses, regardless of size, are now formally accorded the responsibility to respect human rights as stipulated under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – principles in which the Royal Thai Government continues to reiterate its commitment towards.

Regionally, Thailand has been taking a lead in implementing the principles through the development of a National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights which will cover all types of business entities from small-medium sized enterprises to multinational corporations. In addition, there is an international trend of national regulations being extended to global supply chains for companies operating in countries such as the UK, US and France.

More often than not, many businesses are unaware of the presence of trafficking in the first place due to a lack of transparency and oversight in a complex and fragmented web of intermediaries. A reliance on exploitative suppliers and their possible affiliation with criminal networks can result in criminal litigation and subsequent supply chain disruptions. In an age where consumers increasingly expect their products to be sustainably sourced, reputational damage in such instances may also lead to dented consumer trust and boycotts - unnecessary business risks that can be avoided.  

But investing in resources to address these problems need not necessarily be viewed as a sunk cost. In our work with the private sector, IOM has found that the businesses that protect migrant rights often reap benefits in the form of more productive workplaces and increased customer and investor trust.

As a first step, businesses can start by incorporating human rights due diligence processes in their supply chains. Risks identified through mapping exercises – whether on the value chain of a business product from source to store, or the recruitment process of migrant workers from community to workplaces, can allow for mitigation strategies and fair labour practices to be developed.

There are many other ways businesses can contribute. While the private sector lacks legal enforcement and prosecutorial powers, they can still sanction and invoke penalties on staff and business partners, sending a strong message of zero tolerance on breaches of ethical codes of conduct.

Businesses can also engage in meaningful public-private partnerships, working together with the industry, government, international organizations and civil society on prevention, protection and prosecution – key tenets of the counter-trafficking framework. These can range from awareness raising about labour rights to victim identification and protection. The Seafood Taskforce, established to tackle illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) in Thailand, is one excellent example of cross-sector collaboration.

In today’s world, it is insufficient for companies to simply state that an intention to respect rights; the trend now is to have robust policies and procedures to make sure that they do. The most successful and competitive businesses are those that are proactive in tackling slavery and exploitation in their daily operations. As experience has shown, being corporate leaders in the fight against human trafficking can be both ethical and good for business.

Dana Graber Ladek is the Chief of Mission of IOM, the UN Migration Agency in Thailand.