Seeking to build greater awareness of the thorny problem of forced labor, stakeholders from business, government, NGOs and major international organizations gathered at a February 20 conference in Atlanta to explore how the private sector should address this complex issue in company operations and supply chains.
The event, entitled “Engaging Business: Addressing Forced Labor,“ was held at the headquarters of the Coca-Cola Company. It was sponsored by USCIB, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the International Organization of Employers, part of USCIB’s global network, in cooperation with the International Labor Organization.
While child labor is relatively easy to identify, forced labor can be a more complex issue, especially in an era of lengthy supply chains. “It is rare to find workers under lock and key, or physically forced to work under threat of violence,” according to an ILO briefing paper prepared for the conference. “But there are a range of more subtle forms of constraint – such as inducing workers into severe indebtedness, confiscating identity documents of migrant workers, or deliberate non-payment of wages – which can be considered as forced labor practices under national laws or international standards.”
Forced labor is the subject of widely ratified ILO core conventions and is one of the principles of the ILO’s 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. And while many codes of conduct at the company, industry and global levels reference forced labor, it has only recently gained attention in the business community as an issue that requires priority attention.
The meeting, which drew some 80 participants, drew on the experience and knowledge of a cross-section of multinational business and employer association participants in helping to formulate a global strategy for employers that can be used to identify forced labor, to provide means for its elimination and to give guidance on its remediation. Participants reviewed a series of company case studies highlighting innovative solutions to eliminate forced labor.
The need for collaboration was a key theme of the full-day session. “No single business, nor all businesses together, can eliminate the evil of forced labor,” Neville Isdell, Coca-Cola’s chairman and CEO, told conference-goers. “It requires the coming together of the triumvirate of governments, civil society and business.”
Mark Lagon, director of the State Department office charged with combating human trafficking, spoke at the event, urging companies to exert leadership on the issue.
“Our message must be unambiguous and clear: both the public and private sector have zero tolerance for forced labor of any kind,” said Mr. Lagon. “The unprecedented movement of labor and capital in chains of production of exportable goods promises many advances. But without rule of law and good corporate citizenship, it also could lead to modern day slavery.”
Participating executives agreed, and said they appreciated the threats posed by forced labor. “Companies in industries ranging from clothing to food processing to electronics are suffering reputational and business damage from allegations related to forced labor, human trafficking and child labor,” said Ed Potter, director of global workplace rights with Coca-Cola. “Our goal as a company is to continue to build our reputation as a recognized workplace human rights leader that can materially impact the sustainability of local communities where we do business.”
Staff contact: Ariel Meyerstein