The beginning of a new year always generates news stories about new laws taking effect. But this year, the list of new laws brings abolitionists something to cheer about. The California Supply Chain Transparency Act now requires all retailers and manufacturers doing business in California and grossing over $100 million globally, to disclose what they are doing to ensure that slavery does not exist in their supply chains.
The law passed the Democratic-controlled California legislature and was signed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. It took effect on January 1, 2012.
Free the Slaves Director of Programs Karen Stauss commended Governor Schwarzenegger at the time for signing the nation’s “most rigorous” state regulation on corporate transparency for slavery. “This law will have an impact on slavery when informed buyers demand slave-free products,” Stauss noted. “We can hold companies accountable with our wallets.” Because California is America’s largest state economy, the new reporting rules affect nearly all large manufacturers and retailers in the U.S.
It’s easy to think that slavery is a problem that only touches impoverished people overseas. But nearly every American has a direct personal connection. It would be virtually impossible to find a home, school, church or business that doesn’t contain slave-tainted goods. It could be coffee or cocoa, computers or cell phones, cars or clothing. Many goods are still manufactured in sweatshop slavery conditions, or with raw materials that are farmed or mined by slaves.
The California law is an important step in getting the slavery out. Industry experts are already advising corporations that failing to fully investigate and disclose slavery in their supply chain could bring significant consequences.
“For those companies that fail to comply with the law, expect the California Attorney General to sue,” writes corporate consultants SNR Denton in the legal website Lexology.com. “Investigative journalism on those companies who do not check their supply chains should be expected, along with descriptions of those working conditions,” the consultants note.
Free the Slaves has produced an instructive eight-minute video to assist companies on improving their corporate supply chain due diligence. This business briefing video is available via the Free the Slaves website.
Although California is leading the way on corporate disclosure of supply chain slavery, it’s just a first step. Similar reporting provisions have been under consideration at the national level in Congress.
Last October, Free the Slaves’ UK partner Anti-Slavery International (ASI) launched an interactive website that helps consumers get a global snapshot of slave labor in product supply chains. ProductsofSlavery.org shows you which products and industries have been found to use slave labor—and where in the world this occurs. The interactive map is based on data compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor in a 2009 report.
Founded in 1839, ASI is the oldest human rights organization in the world. In 1850, they were already targeting slavery in supply chains with their “slave-free produce” action groups, which promoted the consumption of slave-free plantation sugar. ASI was way ahead of its time—because 160 years later, the elimination of slavery in supply chains is now the focus of many activists and policy makers in the anti-slavery movement.
Just last September, California passed the Supply Chain Transparency Act, which requires all companies that gross over $100 million to disclose what they do to eliminate slavery in their supply chains. And in July, legislation was passed that requires U.S. companies to similarly disclose their efforts to eradicate slavery in products made with Congo minerals.
Representative Carolyn Maloney (D–New York) announced last week that she will introduce a federal bill modeled on the California Supply Chain Transparency Act (SB 657), recently signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. SB 657 requires all businesses that trade in California and gross over $100 million globally, to reveal what they are doing to eradicate slavery in their supply chains.
In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to other members of Congress, Maloney said this proposed bill, titled Slavery Prevention Supply Chains Act will “allow consumers to make better, more informed choices and motivate businesses to ensure humane practices throughout the supply chain.” Like the California law, this federal bill will require companies grossing over $100 million to post on their websites the systems they have in place to keep their supply chains slavery free.
Free the Slaves has been a public supporter of the California legislation. Together with our colleagues at the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), we sent Gov. Schwarzenegger a letter urging him to sign the law. Read our statement here (PDF).
Making consumers aware that slavery may exist in the products we use is a powerful step. But it will take more than this to eradicate slavery. The law only requires that businesses reveal their voluntary efforts in keeping a slave-free supply chain. More legislation and follow up is needed to keep the momentum going.
Maloney seems to agree with our stance. She says, “This is one step in a multi-pronged approach to attacking a horrific problem that plagues the world but is found right here in our own back yards. With increased knowledge, consumers can let their opinions on human slavery be known through their pocketbooks.”
Maloney has had a hand in several anti human trafficking bills making their way through congress, including the Prevention of Trafficking of Tsunami Orphans Act of 2005 (H.R. 950)—in response to the alarming trend of vulnerable children falling prey to traffickers in disaster zones.
Friend of Free the Slaves, journalist Christa Hillstrom (who is also the founder and editor of Human Goods, a magazine-style blog on modern day slavery) has just published an article on supply chain slavery. She focuses on the recent passage of California’s SB 675, otherwise known as the California Supply Chain Transparency Act, which requires California businesses to disclose what they are doing to eradicate slavery in their supply chains.
Here is Christa Hillstrom’s report (via Yes! Magazine):
Slavery Goes Public: Are the products you buy tainted by slavery and child labor? A new California law can help you find out.
Chances are, they’re in your pockets, your closet, and even your body.
From cotton to coltan, materials tainted by slavery and child labor flow through opaque, fragmented supply chains to end up, often without our knowledge, in the products we buy. It’s a global reality that has received little mainstream scrutiny, but a new California law may herald a changing national attitude towards holding corporations accountable for the materials they use.
This week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California’s Supply Chain Transparency Act. The law, sponsored by state Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), requires companies operating in California and making more than $100 million in annual revenue to publicly report on voluntary efforts to monitor their direct supply chains in order to eliminate exploitation.
The use of slave and child labor is common in the mines and fields where resources are obtained as well as in the factories where they’re manufactured. The International Labor Organization reports a staggering 200 million children at work worldwide, while global estimates of people in slavery are as high as 27 million. But in a market that rewards the companies selling the cheapest goods, reform has been sluggish at best.
Corporations that benefit from underpaid or slave labor, including that of children, have also long enjoyed the benefits of plausible deniability—essentially, shoulder-shrugging—when human rights violations occur on their watch. When child labor is discovered in sweatshops at the lowest rung of production at companies like Nike, Apple, Firestone, or Abercrombie, those suppliers are reprimanded and sometimes put out of business. But the companies themselves, which contract for the mining, sewing, and harvesting involved in getting their products on the shelves, often pay little or no penalty.
California’s new legislation could change that. Well, sort of.
While some corporations have voluntarily published official statements on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) for years, this law requires businesses with substantial profits to use a fraction of that money to report on strategies for tracking and responding to slavery in the work they commission. If they don’t have a strategy, they must report that too. And that doesn’t look good.
Editor’s note: Karen Stauss is the Director of Programs at Free the Slaves. Here, she responds to the passage of the California Supply Chain Transparency Act (SB 657), signed into law today by Governor Schwarzenegger.
“We commend Governor Schwarzeneggar for signing into law the most rigorous state law requirement of transparency about slavery in companies’ supply chains. Consumers can now make the choice to buy products from companies that are seriously looking into whether the products they make and sell depend on slave labor. This is ground-breaking. We’re honored to work in a coalition with the lead advocates for this legislation. With this signing, two balls are thrown out: one ball is in the court of companies in California, to see which ones rise to this challenge. The other ball is in the court of everyday American consumers. This law will have an impact on slavery when informed buyers demand slave-free products. We can hold companies accountable with our wallets.”