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An Overview of the “Modern Slavery in Our Lives” Symposium

On September 20, 2018, the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the International Justice Project, and the Slave-Free Community Project presented the “Modern Slavery in Our Lives” symposium at the School of Diplomacy, Seton Hall University.

International lawyers, advocates, activists, and the keynote speaker, Elise Groulx, discussed the facts and some of the solutions surrounding the global issue of modern slavery and human trafficking. Two facts echoed throughout the discussion. First, slavery still exists and over forty million people, twenty of them children, are in forced labor to produce the goods we consume at home. Second, the primary challenge to stop slavery for once is to detect the supply chain reports by corporations.

Andrea Bartoli, the Dean of Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations, opened the floor stating that “slavery is still happening, and many profit from it […], and we are talking about it here at Seton Hall University.” After his moving welcome, Bartoli accentuated the commitment of the School to the well-being of all and the anti-slavery movement.

Moderator Raymond Brown is the co-founder of the International Justice Project, which advocates for human rights, equal justice, and rule of law.  Brown took the podium next to introduce the issue of modern slavery and how the international community has responded to it. The crucial questions at the turn of the last century were the question of slavery, suffrage and the possibility of world peace. There were a number of anti-slavery conventions, he said, but “the real boost” did not come after World War II, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, responding to the use of forced labor by the Japanese Empire and the Third Reich, questioned and challenged, and ultimately brought out a worldwide agreement among governments reaffirming that “slavery is morally apprehensible and unacceptable at all times, legally, ethically, and morally.” Furthermore, its article 23 holds that just and fair compensation was also a fundamental human right.

Thirty minutes in and the turn came for the keynote speaker, activist,  international human rights and international labor lawyer, Elise Groulx, to deliver her remarks and global perspective on modern slavery. She is a recognized leader in the fields of Business and Human Rights, assisting corporations, risk consultancy firms and other assess human rights risks in their strategic projects and supply chains.

What is modern slavery? Where does modern slavery fit into this universe? Groulx stated, “I call it modern slavery, rather than human trafficking because in the modern global economy it’s a fast and cheap production in the market.” It fits in this global economy, “what I call savage globalization.” Modern slavery is illegal and a current global problem that affects almost every country. It is an umbrella that covers servitude, dead bondage, forced labor, compulsory labor, and human trafficking. It can be found in plantation fields (sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa), artisanal mines, factories, private homes, cyber networks, and other. Victims are unable to escape their situation of exploitation because they are controlled by threats, punishment, violence, coercion, and deception. In the present, it is a global industry that is thriving with an estimated revenue of a hundred and fifty billion dollars a year. It is full of operators, skilled professionals operating businesses, employers, labor workers, and traffickers.

How did modern slavery develop to such an extent? Groulx explained that the issue lies in the fact that globalization has grown so fast that it has been significantly unregulated. Political and legal institutions have not been able to catch up. As globalization increased exponentially, it pressured corporations and markets to produce cheaper and faster goods for consumers that demanded more products. The pressure falls on the workers at the bottom of the supply chain who harvest the raw materials to satisfy the demand on the market, and are paid miserably, while corporate profits are soaring. In the global labor market, business strategy is driven by the obsession of cost-efficiency, which impacts first and foremost the workers at the bottom of the race.

Opposition to modern slavery formally started through the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency founded in 1919, which sets forth a set of guidelines and policies to eliminate forced labor and promote equity and labor rights in the workplace. There is the Law of Reporting as well. It started with the California Transparency Act of 2010 requiring businesses to disclose what they are doing against slavery and human trafficking through the supply chain, such as detecting the victims, or banning certain goods coming from certain areas, including but not limited to: conflict diamonds, conflict minerals, and lumber.  The central challenge regarding this law is the lack of transparency in the companies’ reports of the supply chain. Compliance is not enough. It does not bring the engagement to reveal what is happening at the bottom of the supply chain. There is much resistance on the part of the corporations because they fair to expose themselves to any form of liability. In 2017, France adopted the law of the Duty of Vigilance, demanding corporations to make a plan to fight slavery and make such plans public.

Later, Groulx mentioned the United States, France, and the UK, stating that facing the civilized approach to globalization, there is what she calls “the uncivilized approach.” Globalization has also brought to life a fear of the immigrant leading these countries to make domestic policies such as closing the borders. Groulx argues that “this is a wrong approach to globalization, that we cannot escape it, we have to tackle it and frame it in a way that is acceptable.” While the United States has framed the issue of forced labor and human trafficking under criminal law, Europe sees it as a labor problem. It cannot be one, or the other. Modern slavery is a legal problem, but it is part of an economic system as well. Groulx concluded by sharing her wish for the future, which is “to have a law that would define the law of the duty of care that corporations have to follow and cannot escape.”

Next speaker was the attorney, Robert Boneberg, who currently serves as the Coordinator of the Slave-free Community Project. He took his time to promote community involvement as a solution to ending modern slavery. This horrific practice that has existed for four thousand years of recorded history is still present in our society, even after many conventions and laws enacted against it. Hence, slavery is going to end when people come to business, to the government, and say “enough is enough.” It is going to end when schools are teaching it and it becomes part of our culture. Some ways in which people can step up their efforts and make their voice be heard is to support a table, sign petition cards, create slave-free car campaigns. Boneberg compared doing a small, but meaningful, act as “picking a brick” to help create the foundation to end modern slavery once and for all.

As part of the conference, the focus turned to the migrant and the United States, where Elizabeth Mauldin, policy director at Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, explained “labor migration.” The work of her organization starts in home communities where workers are recruited to come to the United States. In this labor recruitment, workers are given short-term visas that are tied to their employer. She explained that one of the most common abuses in this process is the charging of fees, which “are gateways of abuse, labor exploitation, and even trafficking and slavery.” Workers that arrive indebted in their countries of origin are much more vulnerable, with employers going as far as confiscating passports or identity documents.  At her organization enables workers to write reviews about their experiences with recruitment or employers. It also enables workers to verify the existence and legitimacy of certain jobs, and more importantly, know their rights.

Last but not least, Mary Beth Gallagher, Executive Director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, focused on explaining the concept of “tiers” in the supply chain. Concisely, tiers are the different steps, or layers, in the supply chain before the end product is finished and delivered to the market. In a power point presentation, Gallagher displayed the picture of a car and a map of the world. The public was able to appreciate the end product and its distinct parts and materials, which were harvested, mined, and manufactured around the globe due to globalization and the cheap cost of labor not adequately regulated. From workers at the bottom to middlemen, to corporates, to stores, to consumers, each represents a different tier. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and other entities such as the United Nations, have developed legal frameworks and laws to make corporates go to the last tier of the supply chain to see what is going on.

Elise Groulx concluded “Modern Slavery in Our lives” offering one last thought on corporate accountability from her international and legal perspective. She held that “corporates are very important to society, are very powerful and rich, that they must have real responsibilities and liabilities.” Corporates cannot be all about making a profit; they must have a social object and take into account the workforce.


This post was written by Cristian Y. Ramos. Cristian is a first-year graduate student at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, specializing in International Organizations and International Law and Human Rights. Cristian is a United Nations Digital Representative at the Center for the United Nations and Global Governance Studies, the Vice-President at the Graduate Diplomacy Council and a Research Assistant at the School of Diplomacy.  

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