Economic Development, Human Resources, and Law

Conference on slavery raises business ethics questions

Organizers encourage scrutiny of the product pipeline

November 10, 2012
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Conference on slavery raises business ethics questions

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca speaks to the atrocity of human trafficking at Cooley’s Human Trafficking Symposium. Seated behind CdeBaca are, from left, Dr. Vanessa Bouche, Dr. Shawn MacDonald and Brigadier General Michael McDaniel. Courtesy Thomas M. Cooley Law School

Do West Michigan business owners know if they are profiting from slavery?

It was a question Chris Johnson, director of Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s graduate program in corporate law and finance, wanted on minds and hearts when he hosted the Cooley Law Review Symposium and Michigan Abolitionist Project Conference on Corporate Responsibility and Human Trafficking recently.

Johnson’s interest in human trafficking developed last year during a church mission trip into India’s red light district, home to more than 30,000 sex slaves, he said.

What he witnessed was life-altering.

“It really inspired me as a corporate lawyer to really get involved in this and go after this issue of corporate responsibility and have corporations be the leaders in ending this terrible scourge of humanity,” he said.

The keynote speaker for the symposium, “Buying and Selling People: Is that Your Business? Human Trafficking and Corporate Responsibility,” was Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, senior advisor to the Secretary of State and director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

CdeBaca said an upcoming generation of students and business leaders is heavily involved in the fight to end slavery, which is resulting in more awareness. He said young lawyers, counselors and business leaders are asking to be trained in how to deal with human trafficking.

As the culture changes, the laws change, eventually waking up the plaintiff’s bar, he said. That triggers the defense bar, and pretty soon a system is in place where slavery has no room to thrive.

“It’s a combination of penetrating through to the individual but also in business,” CdeBaca said. “It’s a cultural shift. Business and government don’t respond unless people want them to respond.”

Reflecting on the film “Amazing Grace,” which plots abolitionist William Wilberforce’s battle to end British slavery, CdeBaca described the scene where a store puts a sign in the window, saying it will not sell sugar made by slaves.

Businesses will receive a social shunning from an advocacy-motivated customer culture unless they cleanse their pipelines of slavery-tainted products, he said.

Even if businesses are not directly keeping domestic servants in the basement or running slave brothels or coerced labor farms, he said, businesses and their customers are still slave consumers when they eat, wear, sell, buy and use products made by slaves.

“We carry those people with us when we carry the things they make,” he said. “The traffickers take us all hostage — not just the victims or the families — when they implicate the businesses. … They make us part of the problem; we have to be part of the solution.”

Two laws apply to Michigan businesses, Johnson said. The first, the California Transparency In Supply Trains Act, requires large businesses to audit suppliers, making sure products meet anti-trafficking standards.

The second, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, states those who profit from slavery, even through “reckless disregard,” are subject to criminal and civil liability. Johnson said this is a situation where a company either knew or should have known its pipeline was polluted with slavery and turned a deliberate blind eye to it.

Companies should make a strong effort toward tracing the supply chain of their products, engaging the issue first rather than play clean-up later, Johnson advised. He pointed business leaders to audits and to websites such as slaveryfootprint.org and verite.org to investigate their product pipelines.

Slavery is the classic law issue, said Nelson Miller, associate dean of Cooley’s Grand Rapids campus. That is why the law school assists with the Michigan Abolitionist Project.

“These issues the conference addresses hit home, as well, when we have national and global corporations headquartered here, with keeping a clean pipeline of business,” he said.

Lawyers also have a social responsibility to corporate entities with far-flung foreign operations, he said. Businesses receiving products from abroad need to make sure slaves aren’t creating those products.

But to men like Johnson, who have met slaves and witnessed the criminal enterprise of human trafficking up close, the issue is more than a matter of mincing semantics or legal and business public relations. It’s about not being afraid to look yourself in the mirror every day.

“Beyond the law, isn’t this something you would want to check out anyway?” Johnson asked. “If your ‘reckless disregard’ was on the front page and your mother read it, how would you explain it to your mother? Does any responsible business really want to sell a product made by slave labor?”

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