More than 40 sustainable, socially responsible, and faith-based investment groups, who manage over $450 billion in assets, are voicing support today for new requirements that U.S. companies disclose if their products contain “conflict minerals” from central Africa.
One year from today, businesses must file their first disclosures with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) under the Conflict Mineral Rule. Companies must investigate if their products contain tin, tungsten, tantalum or gold from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or neighboring countries, and if profits from those minerals have supported armed groups in the region. Learn more about the rule here.
Free the Slaves has demonstrated that slavery is widespread at Congo mines. The minerals that slaves produce are widely used in the production of jewelry and electronic products such as cell phones, computers and medical devices. Learn about FTS Congo research here.
“Given that the long standing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has claimed more than 5 million lives and contributed to egregious human rights abuses such as rape, child soldiers and slave labor, we believe companies must disclose their use of conflict minerals,” the investors wrote.
“We believe it is important to protect investors through improved disclosure and reporting on social risk factors such as labor practices and human rights. Requiring disclosure within a company’s supply chain allows investors to evaluate supply chain policies and practices, to make company to company comparisons, and to calculate the level of risk associated with conflict mineral sourcing, and to provide assurance that companies are not engaging in destabilizing activities,” the letter states. Read the full letter here on the website of the Responsible Sourcing Network.
The investor letter frames support for the Conflict Mineral Rule in economic terms, because three industry associations are challenging the disclosure requirement in court. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and Business Roundtable claim the SEC did not prove that the economic benefits of the regulation justify the costs of compliance by corporations. A suit to block the rule is pending in federal court. Oral arguments are scheduled for July 1. Read about the case here.
In the statement released today, investors express disagreement with the lawsuit. They conclude that “any stay in legislation would hinder a much needed leverage point to address one of the root causes of the ongoing violence that has plagued the Congo for many years.”
Advocates for corporate accountability are closely monitoring the legal battle over the Conflict Mineral Rule because it has implications for efforts to require broader business disclosure involving all raw materials in product supply chains, and all forms of slavery worldwide.
“Disclosure is important because it motivates companies to ask themselves questions they have never asked before about their business partners,” says FTS Director of Programs Karen Stauss.
The SEC rule targeting conflict minerals from the Congo is already having an impact, Stauss says, because many companies have begun to focus on potential solutions even as the legal challenge to the regulation unfolds in court.
Editor’s Note: Early this month, FTS frontline partner group Challenging Heights conducted one of their largest rescue missions ever, targeting 20 villages along 125 miles of shoreline on Lake Volta, looking for Ghanaian children reported to be enslaved on fishing boats. FTS Ghana Director Joha Braimah and Program Manager Christy Gillmore were with the team as the rescues began. We asked them to share their experience.
JOHA: The path to freedom can be as unnerving as the road to slavery. For many Ghanaian children, enslavement means dangerous work aboard small fishing craft on the world’s largest reservoir, Lake Volta. Ironically, when the hydroelectric dam was completed in 1965 to form the lake, it was hailed as a pillar of progress. It is clear that the architects of the project did not anticipate the horrendous economic activity the lake would also bring. The use of trafficked children for fishing on the lake is rampant. Our mission was simple: rescue. But the outcome was far from certain. Rescues are highly unpredictable. Sometimes it can be negotiated calmly, and other times things just don’t go according to plan.
CHRISTY: The weeklong mission was designed to retrieve children identified by their families as trafficking victims. The families live in communities near Accra where FTS frontline partner group Challenging Heights is based. Many of the children had been sent by parents to work on the lake temporarily in exchange for loans. The parents say their loans had been repaid but their children had not been returned.
My nerves were on edge, as I didn’t know what to expect. As the Challenging Heights rescue team entered the fishing zone, we saw boat after boat with small children hard at work, hauling and untangling fishing nets. I tried counting them, but they became too numerous.
JOHA: Most of the children we saw were in boats by themselves, some had adults in the boats with them. These children do not attend school, and many have no clothes to wear. They work from dawn to dusk before returning to shore for a meal. Even though their boats will be loaded with fish, their meals contain little or no fish. All around us were tree stumps in the water. These stumps have been one of the major causes of boat accidents on the lake, and one of the major risks for child slaves. When nets get tangled underwater in these trees, trafficked children are ordered to dive below to clear them. Many children drown.
CHRISTY: There were six experts on this Challenging Heights rescue team. On Day One, the goal was to liberate children from two villages. When we arrived in the first community, we sat with the alleged slaveholders, a husband and wife. The Challenging Heights team explained to them that the mother of a boy and girl they were keeping had asked for her children to be brought home, that she had repaid her small loan. The team told the slaveholders what they were doing was illegal, and the children needed to be brought home and given good care. The husband conceded, but the wife became angry; she yelled that the children had not yet worked off the money she had loaned to their mother long ago. I nervously watched as she used harsh words, hoping her anger would not turn to violence. Finally, after explaining that if she did not give up the children, Challenging Heights would return with police, the wife grudgingly agreed.
While the discussion went on, I watched the frightened, enslaved girl in the background, washing dishes. I couldn’t imagine what she was feeling in that moment: fear, anxiety, confusion, resentment? If you’ve been sold to strangers by your own family to work night and day with little food and frequent abuse, what would you think of new strangers coming to take you to yet another place? Who do you trust?
Luckily, the Challenging Heights team understood how to handle the situation. One team member gently approached the girl, speaking quietly with an unthreatening demeanor, and explained where the team would be taking her. After a few minutes of uncertainty, the girl packed a bag with her few belongings and followed the rescue team to the boat. Her brother was working on the lake, so the rescue team traveled to meet him. His initial fear and confusion subsided when he saw his sister already on board.
JOHA: In the second village we encountered huge resistance from the traffickers. This created a bit of a spectacle. The entire community gathered around. Some were in favor of releasing the enslaved children; others were not. We were nearly to the shoreline with one child, but could not take him with us as tempers rose, for fear of what might happen to other children in the village that we had come to release but could not find. We had to leave for our own safety, but with a promise of coming back with police the next day. The threat was effective. The two children on our list of children to rescue, plus another child in that village, were quietly sent back to their parents overnight. The slaveholders must have received a tip-off that we actually did go to see the police.
We were with the rescue team for just one day, but their work went on for an entire week – visiting village after village along the shore of Lake Volta, freeing 16 children in all. A few lucky ones may have been rescued. But there are still a lot more. Because of the clandestine nature of trafficking, accurate numbers of trafficked children on the lake are not available. Challenging Heights estimates that 24,000 children may be enslaved throughout Ghana, with the majority of them being on Lake Volta.
CHRISTY: We headed back to a Challenging Heights rescue shelter with the two children the team had liberated on Day One. These slavery survivors stayed in the most comfortable setting they had known in years, with ample food and clean water and gentle care. I watched the boy collapse on a foam mattress, exhausted but relieved. Along the way back, a little more light gleamed in their eyes. The girl started to sing along as songs played on the radio, and the boy cracked a tiny smile when I made silly faces. All 16 child slavery survivors are now at the shelter, where they are regaining their strength, playing, and learning to smile again.
May 13th is a special day in Brazil. It’s the date Brazilians celebrate the Abolition Act, which outlawed slavery here in 1888. This year marked the 125th anniversary.
Of course, slavery still exists in Brazil even though it has been illegal for more than a century. That’s why officials in several Brazilian states picked this year’s commemoration to launch new anti-slavery initiatives.
In the state of São Paulo, Governor Geraldo Alckmin launched enforcement of a new law to close any business for 10 years if it is found marketing products tainted by slavery.
The exact language for what tainted by slavery means: “in the manufacture of which, in any of its stages of industrialization, have been used practices that characterize conditions analogous to slavery.” Businesses caught selling slavery-tainted goods will have their sales tax license suspended for a decade—making it illegal for the company to continue operating.
Governor Alckman’s announcement came during a conference organized by São Paulo’s Federal Court of Justice. Many judges and attorneys attended, as did American diplomats, former Free the Slaves Global Ambassador Katie Ford, members of the National Commission Against Slavery, and leaders from FTS Brazilian frontline partners Reporter Brasil and the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT).
And there’s more encouraging news! On the same day, May 13, the governor of another state, Mato Grosso do Sul, signed on to a law which is exactly the same as the one approved in São Paulo. And two other states announced they are about to enact similar measures: Maranhão and Tocantins.
Over the past three years, these four states have been among Brazil’s worst slavery hotspots. Nearly 1,900 workers have been rescued in these states by specialized anti-slavery police squads.
This new instrument – to close businesses that make slavery possible – is a big step forward in Brazil’s long campaign to snuff-out slavery forever.
Editor’s Note: Xavier Plassat is a FTS board member and directs the Pastoral Land Commission’s anti-slavery initiative. See a video of him in action.
I recently completed my first 100 days as executive director of Free the Slaves.
During my first weeks on the job, I spent most of my time reaching out to stakeholders: staff, board members, donors, peer organizations, policy makers and other FTS friends.
These conversations have helped me develop a portrait of Free the Slaves that I want to share with you. I hope to engage you in an ongoing conversation about how to help FTS flourish.
Think of Free the Slaves as a triangle, the three sides being field programs, thought leadership and advocacy.
Field Programs: Our field programs in Brazil, Congo, Ghana, Haiti, India and Nepal are the frontline. Here, we work to prevent slavery, rescue the enslaved, help freed slaves rejoin families and communities, and promote the prosecution of slaveholders and traffickers. In all our programs we work with and through local organizations, building their long-term capacity to fight slavery. Through our programs, we are educating vulnerable populations about their rights, as well as how to resist the schemes and blandishments of traffickers and slaveholders. We are catalyzing collective action by communities to resist slavery and rescue those enslaved. And we are encouraging local authorities to implement the laws that reduce vulnerability to slavery and punish criminals.
I have seen the power of our field programs: mothers and children reunited, men freed from bondage, entire communities slavery-free and slavery-resistant, local officials alerted and mobilized.
In 2012, we helped free more than 1,750 slaves, reached almost 700 communities, educated more than 14,000 villagers in our slavery prevention program and trained more than 1,500 government officials on how to more effectively combat slavery. In addition, our work led to the arrest of 123 alleged traffickers. I am proud of the fact that Free the Slaves is a global leader in implementing grassroots programs against slavery.
The challenge we face is one of scale. We are helping scores of thousands whereas the need is in the millions. We need to expand in the countries in which we currently operate and open new fronts in the fight against slavery. This will require a qualitative leap in resources from our supporters and new strategies that expand programs at successively lower cost.
Thought Leadership: Our field programs are fueling learning. With 13 years of experience, FTS has built an impressive body of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t in the fight against slavery. For example, we have developed great models for training partners, educating communities and mobilizing protection committees at the village level. We are preparing to share those lessons as part of our contribution to the global anti-slavery movement.
Measuring change in the magnitude of slavery remains very challenging for the anti-slavery movement. Slavery and trafficking are criminal enterprises where the perpetrators do their best to remain in the shadows. FTS is launching efforts to pioneer new and better ways to assess progress at the local level.
Advocacy: Learning from our field programs provides the basis for evidence-based advocacy. Free the Slaves is very well positioned to be an advocate for vigorous government action because we bring experience to the table. Appropriate — and vigorously implemented — laws and regulations, as well as adequate government funding, are essential to combating slavery.
FTS has joined with other organizations in the field and in the U.S. to urge policy makers to adopt good policies and provide sufficient funding. Recently, we played a critical role in the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the law that underlies the U.S. government’s programs against slavery.
The next challenge for advocates is securing adequate funding. The resources currently being invested in combating slavery are paltry. Rhetoric is not enough. Accountability is needed. Free the Slaves will shoulder its part of the campaign for resources and accountability.
Field programs, thought leadership and advocacy: These are the pillars of the Free the Slaves strategy to eradicate slavery. In the months to come, I will share via this blog our successes and challenges – and how our supporters can help.
Several U.S. cabinet secretaries will gather Friday morning at the White House for the annual meeting of the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The meeting will be chaired by Secretary of State John Kerry, and will include Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, and other agency heads and senior White House officials, according to a State Department notice.
This event will be live-streamed on www.whitehouse.gov/live on Friday, May 17, at 9:45 a.m. ET.
“The annual cabinet-level meeting serves as an opportunity to coordinate government-wide efforts and discuss new initiatives in the struggle to end modern slavery,” the State Dept. notice says. It will be the first task force meeting under Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state.
He is expected to also present medals to life-long victim advocate Florrie Burke and the global hospitality and travel company Carlson, recipients of the first-ever Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.