This week, a comprehensive special report in The New York Times detailed the very bottom of a systemic epidemic of human rights violations in global supply chains.
There are 35.8 million people enslaved worldwide in 2015. One in five is a child. Half are women and girls, according to WalkFree.org.
The good news is, the global conversation about the issue of modern slavery has been elevated to mainstream media. On Dec. 2, 2014, International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, Pope Francis said, “Every person, and all people, are equal and must be accorded the same freedom and the same dignity. Any discriminatory relationship that does not respect the fundamental conviction that others are equal is a crime, and frequently an aberrant crime.”
Basically, all sectors reliant on low-paid, unskilled labor are coming under a sharper lens of media and consumer attention. Companies including Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola and Primark have overhauled their CSR and ethical trading policies after unfavorable working conditions throughout their operations were brought to light and subject to public criticism.
One individual working to help more companies make an actionable difference is Rani Hong, whose Tronie Foundation has created a tool for corporations to identify and eliminate human exploitation in their global supply chains. The Freedom Seal is awarded to companies that meet the standard (Detailed criteria here).
“In the 21st century with digital transparency — no one can hide any longer. It’s no longer a valid excuse to say it’s not my problem or I don’t know what to do,” Hong told Sustainable Brands.
Following up on a March interview with Hong at the UK launch of the Freedom Seal and the accompanying #AdoptTheSeal social media campaign, and the US launch at SB ’15 San Diego in June, we caught up with her to hear more about the momentum building around eradicating forced labor in business supply chains.
“The UK and the US are watching the Modern Slavery Act carefully,” she added. “The UK is proactive, and in the USA, there is the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act that requires companies with worldwide annual revenues of $100 million or more to report on their specific actions to eradicate human trafficking in their supply chains.”
It is a life’s work for Hong. Born in India, at age seven she was kidnapped and sold into the service of a man who kept her locked in a cage. She and her husband, Trong, also a childhood trauma survivor, founded the Tronie Foundation, which is dedicated to helping victims rebuild their lives and ending modern-day slavery around the world by educating the marketplace. She said the Freedom Seal has helped get the conversation going and identify starting points for businesses that hadn’t yet considered the implications of forced labor on their operations.
“As consumers, we expect these companies to know this. Some don’t and some do. Training is needed to identify forced labor. The UK government is helping their industries eliminate slavery in the seafood supply chain. As smaller and medium size businesses have developed policies, they’ve met less resistance. Many don’t have enforcement mechanisms in place to prevent forced labor.
“Some big companies turn a blind eye while others have big supply chains — 1,000 suppliers globally — those individual countries and suppliers are not trained on how to identify the risk factor. It’s a huge work in progress — needing to look into their supply chains.
“Companies and consumers are asking the right questions on the Foundation website,” she said. “Companies are using the #AdoptTheSeal hashtag to start the conversation and tell us the challenges they are facing.”
While the onus is on companies to proactively begin managing the issue, Hong says consumers will have a pivotal role to play through the power of preference — by choosing which companies to buy from and which they petition to apply for the Freedom Seal.
“The Tronie Foundation is here to help," she said. “There is no longer any reason companies today cannot take action against slavery. All the services needed are provided on our website.”
Hong said since the Freedom Seal launch in March, the Tronie Foundation has been in discussions with major retailers and suppliers, consulting about the Freedom Seal process and helping them through it. While it’s still too early to disclose the companies undergoing the process, she said she expects the Seal to begin appearing on products as early as next year.
“There was no accountability, previously. The Freedom Seal is a communications tool and a solution to identify the problems. Several companies have committed to ending slavery globally — Apple, Unilever, Starbucks, Nestlé and Pepsi — all have anti-trafficking provisions in place. Consumers and the public need to reward them for that action and help educate about the issue. The Freedom Seal is actively taking action.”
Hong says overall, she is seeing an uptick in business focus on global human rights.
“We are at the tipping point — many more companies are looking at human rights violations. And there’s an increase in consumers asking the question — who is making my [products]? WalkFree, a research partner, found that 66 percent of UK and US consumers would be willing to switch if they knew a brand were involved with human slavery. We are in a unique position to help because we found out how to do the right thing.”
Hong is preparing to speak at the UN in September. While a first round of companies is working to earn the Freedom Seal, she asks consumers to join the fight to abolish human slavery at @TroniFoundation and @RanisVoice, using hashtags #AdoptTheSeal and #FreedomSeal, and to urge companies to apply for the Freedom Seal.