Businesses play trafficking cops

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2012 - 4:07 PM

The ambassador was in town to urge companies to help fight human trafficking through better monitoring.


U.S. State Department Ambassador Luis CdeBaca spoke at the Carlson Company Headquarters about human trafficking in Minnetonka, Mn on May 8, 2012.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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In his war against human trafficking, U.S. Ambassador Luis CdeBaca is recruiting an unlikely ally: Minnesota businesses.

CdeBaca, a former federal prosecutor, is pushing companies to establish anti-trafficking policies and to do a better job of monitoring their supply chains.

Last week, CdeBaca visited the Twin Cities to deliver the keynote address at "Freedom, Here + Now," an anti-trafficking forum at the University of Minnesota. He also met with members of the newly formed Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking (BCAT) at Carlson headquarters in Minnetonka.

Led by its chairman and former CEO, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the travel and hospitality corporation has been outspoken about the need for businesses to do their part to stop trafficking. Its hotels around the globe have implemented anti-trafficking protocols and training.

Businesses can play a key role in the fight, said Deborah Cundy, a vice president with Carlson who is active in the coalition. "Once you're aware of the problem, it's very difficult to walk away from it," she said. "There aren't too many companies that can't help in some way to make sure that they are not unwillingly involved in human trafficking."

CdeBaca has been director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons since May 2009.

QWhat is human trafficking and how prevalent is it?

A'Human trafficking' is a bit of a misnomer. At the end of the day, what we're really talking about is modern slavery. 'Trafficking' is a euphemism that makes people a little bit more comfortable, so we tend to hear it called that more.

As Secretary [Hillary] Clinton says, this is slavery, pure and simple. Once you frame it that way, I think people actually understand it a little bit more. They realize it is about people who are being held against their will, who don't have any options to leave and can't make decisions on their own. That can be U.S. citizens. It can be foreign. It can be adults or children. It could be for sex or labor. It is something that seems hidden but once you start looking for it, you tend to find it.

QHow big a problem is it in the United States?

AIn the United States, it's a little bit tougher. It is typically within the shadows of society. It's more likely in the U.S. for it to be in prostitution or in the underground economy that the immigrants are located in because folks take advantage of vulnerabilities of the immigrants. We don't try to speculate on numbers here in the United States. The best numbers are the global numbers that the researchers have done that point to somewhere between 27 million to 28 million people worldwide.

QHave you done this kind of forum before with the business community in Minnesota?

ANot really in Minnesota. We've been working at bringing the business community in -- it's something we're very keen on. If all we do is address this at the level of the trafficker, as opposed to the folks who are getting their services, then nothing's ever going to change.

QTell me about your efforts to get businesses to play a role in stopping this problem.

AThe biggest thing that we're focusing on is the notion that people need to know their supply chain. They need to understand the inputs in their business model.

You know, the years in which all the inputs for a particular product were being sourced from the Upper Midwest is a thing of the past. So if you're in a major company, you're just as likely to have inputs coming from Indonesia or Malaysia or Africa. So I think part of it is just that notion of awareness -- getting folks to realize that this needs to be part of their business priorities.

Out of that also can come their philanthropic priorities, you know, as they're deciding which community groups to support and what issues to work on. Especially when you have a place like the Twin Cities where there's such a history of good corporate citizenship, the notion of supporting by action, as well as by the internal workings of the companies.

QWhat are some examples of "best practices" used by companies to make sure they're not contributing to human trafficking?

AOne of the best practices is striving to get down to analyzing lower-down tiers. So really you can get down to the factory, you can get down to the farm. In the seafood business, you can get down to the boat. We know that people can get down to the boat or to the farm because they're tracking it for health issues. If an E. coli outbreak happens, they can figure out which farm it came from and where it was picked on that farm.

You overlay that with supply-chain monitoring with unannounced visits, unannounced audits. Having employees have a place they can go to make a complaint if something is happening. Not interviewing them in the presence of managers. A little bit of it is common sense.

Yet I think it's very daunting for some companies. Up until now, there's not necessarily been a reason for them to do it.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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    Title: Ambassador-at-large; senior adviser to the U.S. secretary of state

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