Many companies struggle to understand exactly where, when, and how trafficking in persons (TIP) occurs within their intricate supply chains. This lack of knowledge contributes to the ongoing problem of forced labor, which affects approximately 40.3 million people globally. Forced labor and TIP are particularly acute in Asia, where workers across a range of sectors are often forced into exploitative work conditions.

Companies are often driven by the ‘business case” to take action to combat TIP and unfair labor practices within their operations, focusing on why it is good for their bottom line to do so, and why ignoring these issues poses reputational and financial risks. However, this approach sometimes prevents companies from seeing the full picture and drilling down to the core of the problem. Forced labor and TIP are more than just about financial risks—they are grave human rights violations. Focusing solely on financial risk leads some companies to eliminate the risk, rather than addressing the underlying causes of human rights abuse within their operations. For example, some companies simply eliminate a supplier as soon as unfair labor issues are identified, rather than focusing on ways to work with that supplier to mitigate and improve working conditions, support victims, and remediate root causes.

This financial/reputation risk management approach also shifts the focus away from business ethics and can effectively diminish human rights, rather than strengthening equality, equity, and corporate accountability. Some may rightfully argue that a risk management approach is inherent to any profitable business model, or that this approach is a sign of growing pains, as many companies are still learning about and adjusting to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). However, by solely focusing on economics, the discussion inadvertently serves to perpetuate the commodification of humans for financial gains.

Every successful business must emphasize profitability; but it is just as critical for success and sustainability that a business take a holistic, people-centered approach that places human rights at the core. When companies promote corporate ethics, values, and brand without embedding a meaningful human rights approach that is operationalized throughout their business practices, these often remain figments of public relations. This approach to countering TIP does not penetrate the root causes of the problems and contribute towards corporate sustainability.

Successful companies are good at business, but they are often less capable in operationalizing human rights due diligence standards within their operations to prevent TIP and labor rights abuses from ever occurring. The boldest among them will engage proactively with key stakeholders and embrace equitable and ethical standards in meaningful, tangible, action-oriented ways. A company must engage stakeholders (e.g., employees, communities, investors, business partners, and government officials) in a transparent way that advances its understanding and identification of human rights concerns and stiches a human rights approach into the fabric of its corporate values. By failing to do so, effective and sustainable solutions will not be reached, opportunities to collaborate and work in step with other important actors will be foregone, and recurring challenges related to unfair labor and TIP will persist in supply chains.

Here are steps that companies can take to integrate human rights into corporate values and counter TIP and unfair labor practices:

  1. Adopt and implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP). This is the first global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activities (including TIP and forced labor).
  2. Use the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework. This easy to understand tool aims to support companies in implementing and reporting on their human right activities according to the UNGP.
  3. Conduct a Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) to identify the potential human rights impacts, including TIP and forced labor, within your company’s operations.
  4. Employ human rights and TIP related benchmarking tools:
  • Corporate Human Rights Benchmark is the first initiative to compare the human rights performance of the largest companies. Its methodology is based on the UNGP and specific industry standards and has specific criteria for forced labor and TIP.
  • Know The Chain specifically focuses on benchmarking corporate performance on forced labor and TIP in corporate supply chains.
  1. Engage in strategic partnerships. Forming win-win partnerships with other key stakeholders is an effective way to navigate the vast number of resources, initiatives and available options to integrate a human rights centered-approach into corporate values and operations.