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Originally published Thursday, June 20, 2013 at 4:28 PM

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Guest: Human trafficking and Bangladesh factories

We must analyze how the goods and prices we want in the U.S. create a demand for forced labor elsewhere, writes guest columnist Sutapa Basu.

Special to The Times

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ORGANIZATIONS around the world have done truly amazing work combating sex trafficking through the rescue and rehabilitation of victims and their families.

While this is a commendable and truly urgent need, by itself it is not sufficient to end human trafficking. As someone who has been working on anti-trafficking efforts both abroad and in the United States for nearly 20 years, it has become clear that this problem must be addressed from multiple angles.

The question we must ask ourselves is: Why does this industry continue to flourish, despite all the efforts and funds that have been poured into its eradication? Also, what about the broader issue of human trafficking, such as forced labor in other industries?

Human trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal industries in the world, earning an estimated $32 billion annually. Nearly half of its annual profits are made from trafficking people and forcing them to work, sometimes to make products for industrialized countries.

To answer this question of why, we must analyze not only the circumstances that make a person vulnerable to traffickers, but also how our own policies and practices are fueling the industry. As Americans, we must connect the dots between the goods we want and the measures that are taken to supply us with these products: profit, consumption and supply chains.

Take the recent catastrophes in the Bangladesh garment factories. Thousands of garment workers were killed in tragic, preventable incidents because their livelihood depended so greatly on our constant demand for inexpensive goods and exponential profits. Corporations and factory owners exploit vulnerable women, children and men — many of whom are trafficked into the trade — to produce goods at the lowest possible price.

The solution I am advocating is not to shut down shops in these countries. But we have to hold our businesses accountable when they are consciously discounting prices by cutting corners in their supply chains through forced or trafficked labor in the name of maximizing shareholder profits.

Each one of us must take responsibility for our role in promoting human trafficking, knowingly or unknowingly. As consumers, we must acknowledge the origins of the clothes we wear, food we eat and products we buy.

Let’s ask ourselves: Are we willing to pay a little more for the products we buy so our brothers and sisters here in the United States and around the globe can earn living wages and work under safe conditions?

We need to demand that our businesses disclose their efforts to ensure their supply chains are free of trafficked labor. California has taken the first step with a law that requires retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in their state to disclose their efforts to eradicate human trafficking from their direct supply chains. Washington should be next.

We absolutely can end human trafficking when civil society, businesses and governments are committed to working together to address every facet of the sale of human beings for our economic and personal gain. Globalization does not have to be a race to the bottom.

Sutapa Basu is executive director of the University of Washington Women’s Center.


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