Three major U.S. business associations have asked a federal court to block a new corporate disclosure requirement that would reduce slavery in central Africa, according to news reports in the Wall Street Journal and Compliance Week.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and Business Roundtable want the court to overturn the “conflict mineral” rule approved by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in August.

Enactment of the rule was a watershed moment for the corporate transparency and anti-slavery movements. It requires companies to investigate their supply chains and disclose if their products contain minerals from conflict areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or surrounding areas. If their products do contain conflict minerals, companies have to report what they’re doing to ensure the profits don’t go to abusive armed groups in eastern Congo.

So-called “conflict minerals” from Congo not only fuel one of history’s deadliest wars. Free the Slaves research has documented that rebel groups and army commanders force Congo residents into slavery at many mining sites.

Congress directed the SEC to develop the new rule as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Four minerals are targeted for corporate disclosure: tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. All are commonly used to manufacture electronic devices – from cell phones and televisions to computers and high-tech components.

Business groups have complained that complying with the rule will be expensive, but they have not yet disclosed the legal reasoning for their court challenge, according to news reports. The SEC has vowed to defend the rule.

The legal action “pits companies against customers,” according to FTS Programs Director Karen Stauss.

“Consumers and investors more and more want to know that they’re not buying into widespread global slavery and other human rights horrors like those unfolding in DRC,” Stauss says. “It’s a shame that instead of trying to improve their products and their brands — and the world in the bargain – these associations are trying to drive all companies to a lowest common denominator of corporate irresponsibility.”

FTS is pushing for broader accountability standards that would affect all products and raw materials, not just four minerals from central Africa. The SEC rule is an important step for creating a compliance mechanism for American companies.

You can see the impact of conflict-mineral slavery on the children of Africa in our short documentary: Slavery in Your Pocket.

Slavery in this week’s news

We see slavery and trafficking stories throughout the world each week. It’s great news that journalists and bloggers are exposing the problem of slavery, and examining solutions to it. Awareness creates momentum for change. Here are 10 top stories that caught our eye:

1. The New York Times. “Europe Urged to Fight Modern Slavery at Home.”

2. Electronics News. “Foxconn admits to child labour.”

3. The Daily Nebraskan. “James Kofi Annan speaks out against child trafficking in Ghana at annual conference.”

4. CNN Freedom Project. “Shrimp exports to West tied to bonded labor.”

5. McClatchy. “Big U.S. poultry processor hit with fines over youth labor.”

6. The Boston Globe. “Owners of massage parlors in Wellesley, Revere arrested in human trafficking operation.”

7. BBC News. “Trafficked and sold as a sex slave.” [VIDEO]

8. NPR. “With A Phone Call, Truckers Can Fight Sex Trafficking.”

9. BBC News. “A tipping point in the fight against slavery?”

10. BBC News. “Doctors and nurses forced to pick cotton.”

Face to Face with Slavery in Nepal

FTS delegation visits our frontline group GMSP in Nepal. Sarah is on right with video camera.

Editor’s note: FTS Major Gifts Office Sarah Gardner accompanied several FTS supporters to Nepal. This is the first of several blog stories that we will post over the coming weeks. You can see videos of our flontline work in the mini-documentary Turning the Tide on the FTS website.

I have just returned from a remarkable journey. I had the honor of joining six donors as we visited Free the Slaves programs in Nepal for a week. Whether it was hiking up dirt paths far outside the Kathmandu valley, or riding up windy roads a few miles from the Tibet border, we managed to travel to some of the most remote places in Nepal. And there we found some of the most empowered women and girls I have ever met.

Having worked at FTS for nearly three years, I knew what to expect: Explanations of why our program works, how it works, and the fearless partner staff that is involved in the frontline day-to-day. I can tell you that seeing the work changed everything for me.

But I would rather focus on one of the reasons I work for Free the Slaves. I’ve learned that those affected by slavery TEACH US what ending slavery means. Without intending it, spending time in these communities is like holding up a mirror to our own lives. And some of these realizations were overwhelming and surprising.

My first realization was the importance of community.  The power of our anti-slavery work in Nepal, and our work around the world for that matter, is that the women and girls work together, and look out for the well-being of each another. Karen Stauss, our Program Director, uses the term “neighborhood watch” to describe how a CVC works (a community vigilance committee is a group that  organizes their neighbors against slavery).  This really got me thinking. When was the last time you met with your neighbors to discuss a problem facing the entire community? In rural Nepal, where people have next to nothing, what is the one thing residents have? They have each other. And this didn’t happen on its own—the heart of our program work is the attitude that with the strength of the group, slavery can be beaten.

For instance, in the meetings the women and girls would sit very close to each other, often stroking each other’s arms when one talked about their past, or what they were looking forward to in their future. What stood out to me, is that the primary reason this work “works” is because there is complete “buy in” from those involved. There is no shame or embarrassment in needing others for support, which is very powerful. They often call each other sisters, and they lend members money or food when they need it.

Meeting at the Shakti Samuha Resource Center

The other thing that caught me off guard was that EVERYONE had a phone. We would be in tiny huts way up in the mountains, and a villager’s phone would go off in the meeting, the chirpy ringtone blaring. We saw fiber-optic cables running up along the side of the mountains, along dirt roads where there was often no electricity or running water. I mention this not just to say, “Everyone had a phone,” but to ask the question of what this CONNECTIVITY means. To have a member of Shakti Samuha (one of our local groups) come up to me after our meeting and say, “Will you Facebook me?” initially confused me because I had to come to terms with the fact that the rules of engagement are now very different. These are relationships where we can’t choose to be exposed to slavery and then when we “need a break” from the devastation, turn off this connection.

Of course in my heart I was already committed to this issue in this way, but the reality of this connection became real to me in a way it hadn’t been before. And it begs the question, how can this connectivity be used to help fight slavery? We talk about slavery being in our backyards, but what also happens when it is affecting our Facebook friends? While I still need to digest this reality more, I believe this kind of connectivity could make the issue of slavery much more personal in a world where it is often hidden and “so far away.”

Much more to come from our Nepal journals. Watch this space!

White House Photo

President Barack Obama today outlined several steps his administration will take to strengthen the U.S. government’s efforts to battle slavery.

The plan follows a simple philosophy, the president said: “Spot it and stop it.”

This includes:

  • An executive order issued today that prohibits human trafficking by government contractors and provides federal investigators with tools to crack down on violators.
  • Training for law enforcement, immigration judges and others to help spot trafficking victims, and to treat them as victims instead of criminals.
  • A $6 million partnership with Humanity United and the Goldman Sachs Foundation to spur innovation in local communities to help trafficking survivors.
  • Streamlining T-visa procedures so that trafficking survivors aren’t quickly deported after being rescued.
  • A new annual presidential award for exceptional contributions to the anti-slavery movement.
  • Development of a national action plan to strengthen victim services, and a domestic slavery tracking study to spot trends in U.S. trafficking.

Read the full White House news release with details here. Many of the proposals mirror suggestions to the administration from the anti-slavery movement, including suggestions from FTS.

Mr. Obama announced these actions to fight slavery at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York. See the speech here. He did not shy away from using the “S” word to characterize slavery for what it is.

“It’s a debasement of our common humanity,” the president said. “It ought to concern every community, because it tears at the social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name: modern slavery.”

The White House also announced that the administration’s efforts augment other developments discussed at this year’s CGI gathering. These include:

  • A Global Business Coalition Against Trafficking that will work business-to-business to mobilize corporate efforts to fight slavery in supply chains.
  • A trafficking “toolkit” from the U.S. Travel Association to create awareness in the travel and tourism industry.
  • A campus challenge to raise awareness and inspire activism.
  • A Johns Hopkins university research partnership to focus on child sex trafficking.
  • A Made in a Free World initiative to help buyers and suppliers identify and eliminate slavery-tainted materials in corporate supply chains.

FTS co-founder Kevin Bales welcomes the high level attention that slavery is receiving.

“How many slave-made goods are flowing into our lives is still unknown, but no consumer thinks slavery is a bargain,” says Bales. “It’s time for leaders in the Global Business Coalition Against Trafficking to dig deep into their supply chains and work for a slave-free world.  At the same time, the president and Congress should enact the Business Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act, to ensure that all businesses, not just business leaders, have to report on what if anything they’re doing to address slavery in their own operations.”

President Obama received strong applause during his remarks about modern day slavery. “It is barbaric and it is evil,” he noted, “and it has no place in a civilized world.”

President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak about slavery at noon ET today, at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. You can watch live here or here.

Administration officials have been asking anti-slavery activists for several months if there is more that the U.S. government can do to combat slavery. In partnership with our colleagues in the ATEST coalition of leading U.S. human rights organizations, FTS has suggested a wide range of policy initiatives.

Last week, FTS co-founder Kevin Bales also outlined important steps that the U.S. can take, in his FTS Blog “memo” to Abraham Lincoln. For the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Kevin suggested things Lincoln could do about modern slavery if he were alive today.

It’s not clear just which ideas President Obama might endorse today. White House aides say his strategy on human rights has two key pillars: protecting human dignity and leading by example. We’ll learn today how Mr. Obama might translate those ideals into action.

Combating slavery has long been a bipartisan effort bringing elected officials together even in polarized times. The first Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed during the Clinton administration, and it has been strengthened and reauthorized multiple times during the Bush presidency. Proposals for fighting trafficking are included in both the 2012 Republican and Democratic party platforms.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) has also been an incubator for partnerships to fight slavery. The annual conference brings together activists, thought leaders, corporate executives, philanthropists and government officials to seek ways to tackle worldwide problems. At the 2009 CGI gathering, Clinton himself endorsed the FTS blueprint for change, the Kevin Bales book “Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves.”

“It’s a problem we can solve, and here’s how to do it,” Clinton said while holding up a copy of Kevin’s book.

Today’s a day to take a break from work and watch the news unfold live at CGI. Noon ET, click here or here.