Shipping containers, Morgan’s Point, Texas
Somewhere in the tropical Indonesian waters lies Benjina, an island virtually unknown – until now. Late last month, the Associated Press released a report on the residents of the island. They are not tourists, but slaves forced to work in Thai-owned fisheries for over twenty hours a day and met with brute repression, at times in the form of torture, if they do not comply. A majority of them stem from Myanmar, others from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Despite their differing origins, they all succumbed to human trafficking and now are suffering from the broken promises of a better life. Their trials serve as yet another example of how too often businesses overlook what occurs in their supply chain.
For a year, the Associated Press interviewed the slaves in Benjina and the surrounding islands who recounted the horrific conditions in which they were forced to work. Delving deeper into the issue, AP tracked the slave-caught seafood, discovering that the harvests are distributed throughout Thailand and transported from there to other regions of Asia, Europe, and of course, the United States.
AP focused its attention on the U.S. Thanks to the availability of distribution information, it found that the fish were sold to major companies including Kroger, Sysco, Albertson’s, and Wal-Mart. These companies, along with the U.S Department of State, have since called for an immediate end to the forced labor. However, despite the companies’ calls to free the men, which were likely to have intensified the rescue efforts, the suffering of the enslaved cannot be undone.
In general, businesses eventually sever ties with suppliers when forced labor abuses become public. For instance, Apple cut ties with a supplier that enlisted underage laborers when a report on the unethical practices in their supply chain came to light. However, companies should continuously be questioning where their supply comes from to prevent the abuses from ever occurring in the first place. They must be more vigilant in preventing forced labor crises; they must uphold their social responsibility.
Granted, it is difficult to closely monitor the supply chain as it is extremely complex and often resides far from where the products ultimately end up. Benjina, for example, is situated in a remote location and did not have a cell phone tower until early 2015. However, a cloudy supply chain should not result in complacency. Seeing that journalists were able to track the origins of fish, cleaning the supply chain does not prove to be impossible.
Unfortunately, the story of men in Benjina is hardly a unique one. According to a report by the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, an estimated 21 million people are victims of forced labor worldwide and of those 21 million, 19 million are exploited by private individuals or enterprises. Numerous institutionalized measures such as the laws brought about from the 1930 Forced Labour Convention and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 have been implemented to address the issue of modern-day slavery. A more recent protocol sought to update the noticeably dated laws to account for the changing conditions that come with a more globalized world. Clearly, however, as the conditions of the men of Benjina highlight, these measures have continuously been rendered ineffective. Perhaps the laws have failed because it is difficult to identify forced labor abuses and there is not enough data that can aid in the purge of the human rights abuse. A more telling reason, however, is that people simply do not care enough about the issue.
Certainly, a great deal of responsibility lies with the consumers, those who fuel the demand and therefore, the supply. Rarely do people reflect on where the products they are buying come from either by choice or out of sheer ignorance of the matter at hand, the former being increasingly more likely. Many actively shield themselves from the truth allowing the cycle of trafficking and forced labor to continue. They do not wish to face the grim reality that it is quite possible that the products they are consuming were produced by slaves.
“If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea,” one former slave on the island stated. And, indeed, they should be remembered. Before making a purchase, one should stop to reflect on where that product is coming from.
Reports like the investigation AP released should be pushing businesses and consumers closer to confronting that which they choose not to see. Yet, there were reports in 2001 of child slavery in cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and more recent reports of child slavery in the Uzbek cotton industry. Measures were taken to eradicate forced labor in both industries but the systems continue to exist in part because of the rate at which companies work to clear slavery from their supply chains. In 2012, Ferro, an Italian based chocolate company, vowed to rid their supply chain of forced labor by 2020. Though a seemingly admirable move, for it to take nearly a decade to be carried out is unacceptable. At times, governments even deliberately uphold systems of slave labor as seen in the case of the Uzbek cotton industry. Ultimately, these are the types of stories that initially spark interest and outrage on the subject of modern day slavery but, eventually, people become less interested and begin to turn a blind eye to the truth.
The AP report once again reminded the international community that slavery is still very much present, but how many cases must be brought forth to convince businesses and consumers to change their ways? Forced labor is not a problem that can be tackled solely by one actor; businesses, consumers, and governments must work collectively to hold one another liable for true change to come about and to come about quickly.
Gail Fletcher is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying History and Government.