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Human Trafficking: The Global Issue in Your Backyard

By:  Dianna O'Neill Jan 9, 2013
Human Trafficking.  Credit:  Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department
Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department

This woman in her early 20s was trafficked into a blue jean sweatshop, where she and other young women were locked in and made to work 20 hours a day, sleeping on the floor, with little to eat and no pay. She managed to escape and was brought to the government-run Baan Kredtrakarn shelter in Bangkok. After a few days, when she felt safe enough to tell her story to the director, the police were informed and they raided the sweatshop, freeing 38 girls, ages 14-26.

Every year, more than 2 billion people around the world take a commercial flight. You might be one of them. If so, the next time you're in line at airport security, consider that your alert observations might just save a life. Look around. Do you notice anything unusual about the other passengers - a woman who doesn't speak or make eye contact with anyone, not even the people she's traveling with? Is someone else carrying her I.D. or boarding pass? Maybe she looks anxious. She could be a victim of human trafficking.

“You have to tell yourself, 'I believe this person could be in trouble,'” urges Letty Ashworth, general manager of global diversity for Delta Air lines. “There are 1-800 numbers you can call in this situation. And it’s OK if you’re wrong. We’d rather you report it than not report it at all.”

The Fight to Save Millions of People

Ashworth was on hand at Coca-Cola's headquarters Tuesday, to share her insights at a special Human Trafficking Awareness panel sponsored by Global Workplace Rights and moderated by former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin.

Human Trafficking Panel

Human Trafficking Awareness panel: (left to right) Ed Potter, director of Coca-Cola Global Workplace Rights; Monica Khant, Executive Director of GAIN; Doug Shipman, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights; Letty Ashworth, general manager of global diversity for Delta Airlines; former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin.

Human trafficking is defined as the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through the use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them. The International Labor Organization estimates that almost 21 million people — mostly immigrants, young women and children — are trafficked every year. Some go into forced labor and other forms of servitude, while others are trapped into prostitution. 

Global multinational companies like Delta and Coca-Cola have joined governments, activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world in the fight against trafficking. For example, Delta has several initiatives in place, including a program to train its employees on how to identify signs of trafficking on its international flights. And Coca-Cola proactively addresses potential and actual human rights impacts, including human trafficking, across its entire system and value chain, from raw materials to end use. The company identifies a range of risks and has implemented globally recognized policies and actions to mitigate them. Coca-Cola is also a founding member of the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking (gBCAT), a group of global corporations that recognize the critical role business can play in ending human trafficking and all forms of modern-day slavery.

Tuesday’s human trafficking panel was part of Coca-Cola's ongoing work to raise awareness and confront issues across the spectrum of workplace and human rights. Monica Khant, executive director of the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN), Doug Shipman, CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Ed Potter, director of Global Workplace Rights at Coca-Cola, joined Franklin and Ashworth in the discussion, which drew more than 100 associates.

Human Trafficking Panel

More than 100 associates attended the panel discussion hosted by Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

“This is not a third world problem,” Franklin noted in kicking off the event. “This literally hits close to home.”

In what comes as a surprise to many, Atlanta, Georgia, is one of the major hubs for trafficking in the U.S. It’s a sprawling, transient and diverse city that’s also home to the world’s largest passenger airport — factors that create conditions prime for trafficking.

“Victims enter on every mode of transportation you can imagine, including planes, trains, buses, cars and even ships,” Delta’s Ashworth said.

Part of the challenge in fighting trafficking is that many people don’t know how endemic it is, said Shipman, citing chocolate and bananas as two examples of products often harvested by forced laborers. “But there are ways to get educated about this,” he stressed.

Businesses and Consumers Join Together to Save Laborers

Shipman explained how trade certification websites and watchdog groups enable consumers to track labor practices associated with common products and commodities. He praised the global coffee industry in particular, for its effort to educate consumers about fair trade coffee. For those who aren’t sure where to start, Shipman mentioned a cell-phone app, Free World, which allows consumers to enter a specific item to find out if indentured laborers were used to produce it.

“It’s important to realize what your dollars support," said Shipman. "You may not be able to change your buying patterns in the short-term, but it may help you to raise the issue with political or community leaders. This affects all of us as individuals, from consumers all the way through businesses, and it’s one of the few human rights challenges that resonates across all parts of our lives.”

Monica Khant, Executive Director of GAIN, spoke next, explaining that, in Georgia, 46 percent of trafficking is related to prostitution, 27 percent to domestic servitude, 10 percent to agriculture case and the remaining 5 percent are trafficked for other labor. As part of the organization's effort to advocate for human trafficking victims, GAIN boasts a network of 200 lawyers who work pro bono to help escaped victims gain immigration status. In 2005, their first year of operation, the group expected 25 cases.

Human Trafficking Panel

Among the larger panel, Monica Khant explains the human trafficking breakdown to a Coca-Cola audience.

“We got double — 50 cases — and now we’re up to more than 200 annually,” said Khant.

She described how daunting it is for victims to escape or to even consider coming forward. Language barriers and fear of reprisals against relatives back home are key problems, as is a lack of knowledge about how to get help.

“They’re coming from countries where police may not even be on their side,” she said. “The victims have been brainwashed into thinking police are there to deport them. They’re also not allowed access to the outside world. Or let’s say they are: They go to the grocery store. But they’re always supervised. They’re taken by their trafficker so they never feel safe enough to just run. They don’t know 9-1-1. They don’t know they have rights. So the first time we even meet them it’s really empowering. We’re helping them realize they do have rights in the U.S.”

"The Power of The Many"

The discussion was rounded out by Ed Potter, director of Coca-Cola Global Workplace Rights, for whom human trafficking is a personal topic. He was formerly a mentor to a Rwandan child who had been a victim of trafficking. The boy, who Potter called “Jimmy,” eventually graduated from junior college and is now a technician at the National Institutes of Health.

Potter noted the power in those kinds of “personalized," individual stories. 

“We’re all citizens of the world,” he stressed. “There’s something that each of us, unrelated to our responsibilities at Coca-Cola, can do with respect to this ... The power of the many can make a big difference.”

Worldwide, there is tangible momentum in the fight against trafficking. For starters, the problem has gained exponential attention in the last five years, thanks, in part, to the Internet, and the many forums and websites highlighting the issue. And politicians are deeply involved. In fact, at the Clinton Global Initiative this past fall, U.S. President Obama called trafficking an “outrage” and outlined new steps to stem the abuse.

Because trafficking often involves young people, there’s a groundswell of support from younger Americans who are talking about the issue and bringing it to their high schools and college campuses.

During Tuesday’s closing Q&A session, Franklin acknowledged both the progress and the hard work still ahead, drawing a parallel with the legacy of the civil rights movement.

“When I graduated from high school, I could not be mayor of Atlanta. When I graduated from college, I could not be mayor of Atlanta. It was years after I graduated that the rights of African Americans in the South changed. And by virtue of being the beneficiary of these major changes — which allowed me to do something I enjoyed, my political career — because of that, I felt a responsibility to give back. So I would ask you to think about this issue as one of those that is going to take the same number of years and toil and strategy to change. And there is no telling what human potential we will unlock.”

To learn more about the signs of human trafficking, click here.  If you see signs of trafficking in the United States, please call the National Trafficking hotline 888-373-7888, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hotline 866-347-2423 or go online to the Department of Homeland Security.