You’re listening to Episode 27 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. In this episode, we’ll hear from an anti-labor trafficking advocate who monitors supply chains.
In our last episode, we learned about a form of labor trafficking that involves all of us: supply chain labor trafficking. Unlike other forms of labor trafficking, like domestic labor, supply chain labor trafficking is connected to all of us because we may unknowingly contribute to it. Of course, it’s not that we want to do this, but it’s hard to know if a product that we bought was made ethically if companies aren’t transparent with us. That’s why we have people like Lakshmi Bhatia, an anti-trafficking advocate in India, who monitor supply chains for us. Let’s hear what she has to say about sweatshops, monitoring supply chains, and what we can do to support her important work!
Victoria: To start off, how do people in your line of work define sweatshops as opposed to other kinds of factories? Is it defined differently than what most people think sweatshops are?
Lakshmi: I think sweatshops are defined as anything where the workers are not treated as per the laws and regulations of the land, as per the ILO (International Labor Organization) conventions that are applicable to them. And most importantly, keeping the humanity which is so critical in the human rights, the business and human rights piece. So wherever you see that there are all kinds of violations that can take place in units, factories where rules are not followed, whether it’s to do with health and safety, whether it’s to do with labor wages, whether it’s to do with underage employment, contract employment, etc. And usually, we see that the working conditions will not be adhering to any international standards. So, those are the places that are usually referred to, in common terms, as sweatshops.
Victoria: Thanks for defining that for us. I was told by our friends over at Youth Underground that you were originally working for GAP as their advisor for social responsibility, and now you're at SustainAbility. Could you tell me more about how you became involved in these roles, and what you do in your daily work?
Lakshmi: Yes, you’re right. I used to work at GAP. I was there for almost a decade and a half. And my work started initially doing audits of supplier factories that used to produce for GAP and also for multiple other brands to make sure they were in compliance for the national and international codes of conduct, which were based on the principles of human rights and the ILO laws, and so on, as well as the country’s laws. Later on, my role changed, and eventually I was the Global Director for Global Partnerships, which really involved looking and multi-stakeholder partnerships across the world. We’ve had a team globally that I used to manage. And we looked at setting up partnerships with different stakeholders who we felt were critical for catalyzing change that would help improve working conditions in supply chains all over the world. This meant engaging with brands and working in groups. In many countries, this involved working with NGOs and other civil society organizations who were working with workers directly in the supply chains. It meant working with international and national-level trade unions on issues around freedom of association, collective bargaining, issues of fairer wages, and so on. It also meant engaging with governments to look at what policies and what rules and regulations. And the implementations were critical for sustaining an equitable and a fair world for everyone, including the producers of the garments, and apparels, and textiles, and so on. So it was a lot of work, which meant engaging with different groups of stakeholders on a global basis.
Victoria: So then in your work, can you talk a little bit about the conditions in the sweatshops you have seen and the extent of labor trafficking that occurs in factories for prominent brands? Do you think labor practices are improving over time?
Lakshmi: Uh, when you ask me about the conditions that I have seen in different workspaces across the globe -- well I’ve seen some good ones and I have seen some which are really not great. For example, this was in the mid-90s. One of the first units I went to audit, it was a place which would be called a sweatshop by any definition. It was just a basement that was just filled with machines. There were electrical wires that were just hanging everywhere. It was not a clean space. It was cramped, dark, dingy and the workers were called by their machine numbers, not even by their names. There was no recordkeeping. I don’t think their wages were being paid. Of course, the unit never sort of really passed any of the auditing standards, and we always had a policy of not just writing off units that we came across at GAP, but continue with to engage with the suppliers to see if they were willing to make the changes that were important and critical in favor of more humane and a better and a fairer working condition. Our belief in doing so was that we wanted, not just to be left in the lurch but to continue in the process of engagement to have better and fairer processes. So that was one. I’ve seen units where workers had to stand all day long, where permissions were not given for toilets, for toiletries. I’ve seen places where there would be physical abuse, harassment of all sorts. Cases used to be brought up to a notice of sexual harassment, and these are not specific to any one country. This is sort of, some of this would be -- they’re from all across the world. And whenever these issues were brought to our attention, we would do due diligence to how we addressed them and make sure that they were handled sensitively in a way that would not negatively impact the workers in any way. Or when the issues of child labor or trafficked labor were brought to our notice, then there again we would engage with the government and other actors, with the local labor departments, we would bring together stakeholders to address these issues. If you ask me, one of our greatest learnings through the journey of the last two decades has been the strength of collaboration and positive engagement is extremely engagement with multiple stakeholders. You have to deal with many, many complex issues, like trafficking, child labor, forced labor, and so many other things. Especially in today’s world when there is so much of chaos around, isn’t it, the need to come together, the need to be very grounded, the need to really look for solutions closest to where the problems are, to listen to the people who are actually the victims and take their points of view in how we shape decision-making and policies -- all of these I think are really, really critical, and I think it’s really important to bring the human back into human rights.
Victoria: So if we want to like you said “bring the “human” back into “human rights”, then what do you think is the best approach for tackling supply chain labor trafficking? And, relatedly, what advice do you have for young people interested in combating exploitative sweatshop conditions?
Lakshmi: If I have any guidance to give on what the youth can do in dealing with this very critical issue of human trafficking, I think for anybody who is interested in this as an issue, and as I believe this is an issue we all should be interested in, because it’s so critical to really preserving humanity on so many levels. I think the first thing is to keep raising awareness, to make sure you're going to schools, college campuses, using social media, doing what you’re trying to do, get the word out there through podcasts, videos, and so many other things. To help raise awareness, to get people to question the brands and retailers and businesses and governments on these critical issues. Use the UN space, use groups which work on creating collective change. I think, creatively see how you can raise the awareness on these issues. Because the greater the awareness, people will begin to think -- more people will begin to think creatively as to what can be done to handle some of these very complex issues. One of my other learnings has been that one cannot really blame any one group of stakeholders for the mess the planet is in. It’s actually collective responsibility. There is something that everyone can do if we come together. Also very important to keep ourselves inspired. This is a message particularly for the youth. Some of these issues can be very, very challenging and very heavy. Progress can be very slow, so it’s important you stay connected with a support group. It’s important that you collaborate with others, like-minded spaces, and people globally, and keep each other inspired. This kind of work is for the long-haul so we need to prepare to run the marathon. And you know how much preparation running a marathon requires. Those are some of the tips that I can give from my side.
Victoria: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Lakshmi: I hope some of this has been useful. I’m very grateful for this opportunity to share some of my thoughts. I wish The Trafficking Dispatch and all other organizations linked with you the very best of luck for this very critical work at a very critical juncture in humanity's history. So, more power to you. Good luck with everything.
While labor trafficking in supply chains may seem like an impossible issue, people like Lakshmi show us that we have made significant progress! If you’re wondering what you can do about this issue, you can listen to our previous episode for some ideas. But you can also start or join a program that helps prevent supply chain labor trafficking in the first place! For some inspiration, let’s listen to our next Audible Audience segment, which comes from Lamont Hiebert, a long-time anti-trafficking advocate.
Lamont: Hi, my name is Lamont Hiebert. I’m a Canadian living in New York City. I’ve been combatting human trafficking since 2002 for various organizations. I’ve helped establish survivor-care programs in Asia, prevention programs in Cambodia, and also prevention programs in the US. I currently work for UNITAS and am developing and overseeing programs to prevent human trafficking through education in schools and through online digital campaigns. I’m helping to support programs for survivors to heal and thrive.
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on November 25th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at email@example.com. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.