Private Sector Leverages Comparative Advantage to Fight Slavery

As former lead diplomat and interagency coordinator in the federal government to fight human trafficking, I had the privilege to learn a ton about an often ignored, discounted, or misunderstood crime and abuse. From a woman I met in Romania who got TB as a sex trafficking victim in the UK, to the young woman I met in Bangkok who was subject to beating in a secluded Thai seafood processing factory after fleeing repressive Burma, human trafficking is about gross exploitation.

Sometimes it’s about moving across borders, but often it is not. Never having crossed any borders, the U.S.-citizen teenagers who are prostituted throughout America and the people of disadvantaged castes trapped in bonded labor in rice mills and brick kilns in India are human trafficking victims by dint of domestic law and U.N. protocols. “Trafficking” refers to the human trade – treating people as pure commodities robbed of freedom and equal dignity.

Eschewing jargon, human trafficking is best seen as slavery — typically without chains, but slavery nonetheless.

While the public sector has much to do to help victims and punish their traffickers, so much is to be done by other actors.

I’m now the Executive Director and CEO of Polaris Project, named after the North Star which, with the help of ordinary citizens, guided slaves to freedom in the Underground Railroad. Polaris Project is devoted to breaking the backbone of traffickers in America by reducing the profit and raising the risk. The U.S. government has turned to us as a nimble NGO capable of running the primary national human trafficking hotline (1-888-3737-888) (http://nhtrc.polarisproject.org/ ) We serve as a catalyst in the anti-trafficking movement, from the essential micro level of victim services to the macro level of reforming laws and their implementation.

Not just nonprofits, but funders and investors outside of government are essential to the ultimate goal in fighting slavery today: abolition rather than mere mitigation and regulation.

Some philanthropic funders have entered this space. Humanity United funds anti-trafficking nonprofits and the leading coalition Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (aptly named ATEST, summoning the image of faithful witness to crimes against human dignity). Additionally, the NoVo Foundation, led by Jennifer and Peter Buffett, has committed to supporting work to empower women and girls against the dehumanization of sex trafficking. (Full disclosure: both fund Polaris Project.) Within a two-week period this autumn, Polaris Project was featured at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting where President Clinton highlighted human trafficking as a problem deserving action. Polaris Project was recognized for its anti-trafficking work in the U.S. and Japan and for the commitment it made to be an exemplar for the world. I also had the opportunity to speak at the annual meeting during the more politically conservative Philanthropy Roundtable. Yet there’s still a largely untapped opportunity for philanthropy to help the goal of abolition.

Businesses have a part to play too. First, they need to implement in deeds a kind of Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. They mustn’t wittingly or unwittingly spur on human trafficking. In the area of labor, businesses should make supply chains more accountable. The Department of Labor has given them a tool by promulgating a report on countries in which various sectors are tainted by forced labor and onerous child labor. Moreover, there need to be more businesses like Manpower Inc. who admirably seeks to eliminate shark-like labor recruiters who help enslave people through lies, seized passports, and usurious debt.

Businesses should also avert enabling human trafficking for sex—whether airlines and hotels work to not facilitate sex tourism; landlords rebuff brothels; or internet advertisers refuse to allow commercial sex (and with it, sex trafficking) to be promoted by their businesses.

Businesses can contribute to philanthropy against trafficking, and often have comparative advantages to bring to the fight. Just take three partners of Polaris Project:

The direct financial support, legal and technical advice, and research services of LexisNexis – is part of the company’s significant commitment to advancing the Rule of Law around the world. LexisNexis Risk & Information Analytics Group worked with Polaris Project to develop and implement a new web-based system that allows all employees of our national human trafficking hotline to access the same information in real time. It allows employees to service those in need by being able to field and respond to hotline calls more quickly and provide up-to-date, accurate information about local resources and service providers.

In late 2008, Wyndham Hotel Group generously donated one million Rewards points to Polaris Project. We utilize these points to provide emergency hotel stays to victims of human trafficking. Wyndham Hotel Group provides the first step in the recovery process for these victims who have nowhere else to turn. The support of Wyndham Hotel Group is so vital to victims of human trafficking that the Wyndham Hotel Group and Polaris Project relationship was listed in the 2009 Trafficking in Person (TIP) report released by the Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton last June.

And the aforementioned Manpower recently signed a partnership MOU with Polaris Project. Polaris Project will help Manpower employees gain more expertise on human trafficking in the labor market, and in turn Manpower will help Polaris Project by offering job training and job placement for victims we serve in places like Washington, DC; Newark, NJ; and Tokyo, Japan.
Philanthropists and businesses have slowly entered the fight to end human trafficking. But only when their role matches that in fields like development, international education, HIV/AIDS, and domestic violence will we have the hope of realizing the goal of a world without slavery.

By Ambassador Mark P. Lagon
Mark P. Lagon, PhD. is Executive Director and CEO of Polaris Project, a leading anti-human trafficking nonprofit, running the 1-888-3737-888 national hotline. He was formerly Ambassador-at-Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the Department of State.

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