Recently, I told a stranger at an airport what I did for a living. We were in the midst of our second flight delay and the chit-chatty conversation quickly parlayed into his long-desired, yet unfulfilled, passion to work on issues of human trafficking. He told me he had (quite sincerely) been meaning to volunteer for ages; meeting me opened the flood gates: what could he do? Who needed his help? Surely, there must be an organization just waiting for Someone Like Him to come along and offer his services. This conversation, in concert with our post on campaigns, warranted heavy meditation on alternative avenues for productive activism against human trafficking.
We believe individuals genuinely want to contribute to the eradication of trafficking. Unfortunately, we also believe this process became wrapped up in its own heroism and overlooking several practical issues regarding volunteering. First, there is a common misconception about the non-profit sector: that we are all volunteers. In fact, the non-profit sector is highly professionalized and, of late, competitive, chock full of individuals who have spent many years acquiring expertise, often with a stack of degrees. Second, in human trafficking and other issues regarding vulnerable populations, volunteers are not always an asset, at least in the ways they would aspire to be. As an example, without a background in social work, you will not likely be recruited to “rescue” or counsel victims. Of course, opportunities to volunteer exist among organizations with the resources to hire and coordinate extra help, but such resources are by no means universal.
Increased awareness-raising about human trafficking unaccompanied by necessary resources to support the structural needs of organizations actually attending to trafficking may burden existing services encumbered with requests to volunteer. As a result, staff time is spent fielding requests for (short-term, infrequent) volunteers, developing training and work schedules to match volunteer interests and skills for a number of days/weeks/months, monitoring progress and being available for any support; potentially diverting time from direct case work, crises, funding, advocacy or programmatic initiatives. It is difficult to place individuals without very specific skills or substantive knowledge required of either the subject or role. Think about it this way: you’re, say, a Commodities Floor Trader. What do YOU think you would bring to an anti-trafficking organization? You might be as helpful to me as having a policy researcher (with no experience in finance) trading commodities – even if I worked for free. So, back to my friend’s question: how can I help?
Individually, this may comprise several modes of action. First, look at what you consume: what do people in your office drink on their coffee break? What do your kids use to bake cookies? If you don’t have the time to commit to hours of activism, get your company to switch to Fair Trade products. This may not seem as glamorous as embracing an enslaved child, but may go a long way towards creating more sustainable responses to exploitative labor conditions in the first place. Second, become educated about, and reject, initiatives that market human trafficking itself as a product. Third, consider contributing to organizations whose aims may successfully support or address the root causes of human trafficking (but may not be trafficking specific); for instance, Oxfam engages in a variety of programs addressing economic empowerment.
In Singapore, while the conversation on human trafficking may be relatively new, the presence of global corporations is not, presenting an interesting opportunity for those who want to engage in more substantial activism.
In the last year, businesses in Singapore took notice of human trafficking and exploitative labor conditions. For example, convened by HOME in April 2012, the Trafficking in Persons Business Forum brought together local and global business, including Microsoft and Google, to discuss this issue. Similarly, businesses supported recent initiatives by UN Women to raise awareness and funding for anti-trafficking programs. But much more can be done by both businesses and consumers.
Aside from acknowledging the occasional, highly-publicized bad apple, businesses tend to see human trafficking as the majority of the general public: a topic relegated to sex trafficking, sweat shops and child labor. Outside these areas, some corporations find it difficult to build a business case for trafficking and tend to disengage from the issue. As in, if you are a technology company that doesn’t employ children, make garments, or recruit for sex then it’s difficult to see how trafficking may affect your organization. As a result, in Singapore, the focus on trafficking within businesses is generally restricted to creating time for employees to volunteer, or occasionally, giving money. The reality is that many non-profit organizations would benefit more from long-term sustainable funding than short-term volunteerism, individual or corporate, and there are other ways in which corporations can be involved that would directly impact trafficking.
The time to incorporate measures against exploitative labor and human trafficking into existing Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies has come. A recently published report by Anti-Slavery International in the UK showed that it is simply insufficient for corporations to plead ignorance on the presence of exploitative/harmful labor practices within their supply chains. Improved Corporate Social Responsibility (and Corporate Accountability) strategies that robustly engage with these issues should be de rigueur for all business working in Singapore.
Luckily, the frameworks for evaluation are well established. The UN has produced or supported a number of initiatives; for example, the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. Similarly, there is the EU strategy for Corporate Social Responsibility, the OECD Guidelines for multinational enterprises, the UN Global Compact, the ILO Tri-partite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy, to name a few. There are also well-known examples of good business practice developed by companies such as the Body Shop, to which consumers and businesses alike can refer. Understandably, fair trade itself is a business and for even corporations that aim to be more socially conscientious, this can be confusing.
However, an increasingly educated public (including leaders in business) has the power to impact good business practice as well as consumer awareness. This is an under-developed (but growing) area of activism within human trafficking, but one in which potential activists could develop campaigns – particularly those coming from the business community. There is great potential to directly collaborate with and let corporations know consumers care about the products and/or services that are being provided: for example, does Corporation X ensure that its workers (including those who may be subcontracted) are fairly recruited and compensated? Or has Grocery Store Y stocked its shelves with products that are compliant with Fair Trade standards? Consumers need to get educated on how the fish ends up on their plate, their handbags are stitched and their mobile phones made. Asking businesses (including universities! For all you students) how they operate, if they can verify that the woman who stitched that new handbag was paid a fair wage, is all part of this process.
In the UK, the power of consumers in influencing a business’s commitment to ethical and fair trade practices has been manifested by organizations such as the Fair Trade Foundation and Ethical Trade Initiative. Equally, supermarkets now indicate the origin of products, allowing consumers to make an assessment on carbon miles (or whether they will purchase products from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, for instance). Singapore currently has a small, but growing, Fair Trade SG group, with information about where to find fair trade products. There are also a number of Singaporean Associations looking at issues such as fair employment practices. Businesses can also refer to organizations such as the Singapore Compact, which is ‘committed to bringing the CSR movement forward’.
Central to successfully engaging with the business community on this issue involves awareness-raising on the broadest and most accurate picture of human trafficking; this includes moving beyond a current focus on sex trafficking. It is too easy to propagate horrified notions of foreign sex trafficking victims; rather, attention should be focused on the businesses which support, supply or simply condone the use of exploitative labor. Anti-Slavery International’s recent report demonstrated the relationship between exploitative labor and supply chains; many of the companies in the report can also be found in Singapore. Reports like these could function as excellent starting points for consumer activism.
Taken further in the Singapore context, particular attention should be paid to sectors most at risk from using exploited or trafficked labor. For example, recruitment agencies for domestic, fishing and construction labor need to show they use scrupulous, legal and ethical methods. Recently the Singapore Government increased its commitment to tackling dishonest recruitment agencies by clamping down on the fees that can be charged to prospective workers. Until there is more transparency in how businesses such as these operate, and greater education for and by consumers on these issues, including what questions to ask, then labor exploitation will be hard to eradicate.
Singapore is an affluent, consumerist hub of international finance and commerce. As there is a growing awareness of relevant issues, the combination of buying power and ethical commitment means that Singaporean consumers could be at the forefront of increased supply chain accountability. We encourage all businesses to increase awareness regarding their own supply chains, and to continue to engage with local and international NGOs to develop best practice to ensure the products and services they provide are not undermined by labor exploitation.