247 – Perspectives on Transformation in Labor Trafficking, with Ben Skinner

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Ben Skinner discuss the nonprofit Transparentem. Ben describes the role Transparentem plays in combating human trafficking and creating better opportunities for those being exploited. They discuss the standards that must be put in place to combat labor abuse in global supply chains.

Ben Skinner

Ben Skinner is the Founder & Principal of Transparentem, a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the well-being of workers and communities by exposing hard truths to those with the power to transform industries. Previously, as a journalist, he reported on diverse topics from five continents for Time, Newsweek International, Travel + Leisure, and others. His first book, A Crime So Monstrous, was awarded the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction, as well as a citation from the Overseas Press Club in its book category for 2008. He was named an Adventurer of the Year 2008 by National Geographic Adventure.

Key Points

  • Transparentem adheres to the highest ethical standards of investigative journalism. They seek to document and expose hard truths while doing no harm in the process.
  •  Transparentem investigates evidence of endemic problems that affect the health and welfare of a substantial number of workers and communities, including human trafficking and other forms of forced labor. Once documented, they bring their findings to the attention of companies with the leverage to address the problems, not only with their own supplier groups but also with the industry as a whole.
  •  Holding companies accountable for their actions is very important but pressuring companies to cut ties with worksites where evidence of abuses are found too often leaves workers in worse places.
  •  When signs of child labor or forced labor are found, Transparentem provides detailed reports to involved companies and engages with companies on remediation, providing recommendations on best practices to address these issues.
  •  Many individuals that find themselves in an environment with forced labor were originally promised good jobs with fair pay. Transparentem works with companies in an effort to fix the jobs to be more in line with those that were promised to workers and to create good opportunities for those that are being exploited.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast; this is episode number 247 Perspectives on Transformation in Labor Trafficking with Ben Skinner.


Production Credits [00:00:11] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.


Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak


Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan.


Dave [00:00:39] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking, Sandie. Today we have with us someone who is an expert voice on human trafficking. They are going to help us in so many ways with perspective. And I’m really excited about this conversation. I’m so pleased to welcome Ben Skinner to our show today. He is the founder and principal of Transparentem to a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance the well-being of workers and communities by exposing hard truths to those in power to transform industries. Previously, as a journalist, he reported on diverse topics from five continents, four Time, Newsweek, International Travel and Leisure, and others. His first book, A Crime So Monstrous, was awarded the two thousand nine Dayton Literary Prize for nonfiction, as well as a citation from the Overseas Press Club in its book category. For 2008, he was named An Adventure of the Year in 2008 by National Geographic Adventure. Ben, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.


Ben [00:01:44] Thanks so much, Dave. Good to be with you and Sandie.


Sandie [00:01:46] All right. So, let’s dove in. I read a crime so monstrous a decade ago and then I pulled it out and read it again this year during January, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. And even in your early work, you were focused on why things were happening. And so, thinking about that, I have this sense that being an investigative journalist made your approach to this a little different. Can you tell us what it means to you to be an investigative journalist?


Ben [00:02:27] Sure. So, the first two principles of journalism, ethical principles are seek the truth and tell it and do no harm in the process. And the code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists has a long list of ethical principles which we here at Transparentem to seek to adhere to when we build our own ethical code around that. But for me personally, it was extraordinarily important when we’re talking about survivors when we’re talking about those that are currently suffering from slavery, forced labor, human trafficking, that that do no harm principle is put forward very strongly. Everything that I’ve done as a journalist and everything that we do as an organization, we go to great, great lengths to not only seek the truth and tell it, but to make sure that what we’re doing makes the lives better. For those that we are writing that we are writing about, that we’re reporting on, and at the very least doesn’t make their life any worse.


Sandie [00:03:35] So, Ben, how does your book, A Crime So Monstrous, fit your perspective now more than a decade later?


Ben [00:03:44] It’s a very good question. And first of all, I appreciate you picking it up again. I’ve been doing the same not only in anticipation of this but to touch base with myself from ten years ago and to see what’s changed. I think fundamentally, the definitions remain. Slaves are those forced to work, held through fraud, under threat of violence for no pay beyond existence. In our work today, we use the term slavery sparingly. We talk much more about forced labor. We talk about human trafficking. And that’s primarily because we seek to engage with corporations that want definitions in readily available definitions in international law. And the most useful framework for us is what the international labor office puts out there. So, the terminology, I think, fundamentally applies in our current work. We use it a little differently. The reason we do our current work, I should say, is because of something that I’ve noted in the last decade, there has been an acceleration of kind of concentrated power and increasing concentration of power in the hands of private corporations versus governments versus nation-states. Ten years ago, when I was writing the book, there was less than 60 percent of the largest hundred and seventy-five economic entities in the world were corporations today. That’s north of 80 percent and it continues to grow. And so engaging with corporations, I think, is not only nice to have, it’s a need to have because of the extraordinary clout, the extraordinary power, and the fact that a multibillion-dollar corporation will touch millions and millions of lives, so those are two big adjustments over the last decade in terms of the overall movement at the time when the book came out, I think there was still it was just kind of baby steps on the part of a lot of governments, local, state, federal in the United States and foreign governments as well, to understand what this issue was and to begin to put proper frameworks in place for how to do it. I think that the very capable work of Ambassador Dibakar in the Obama administration to carry forward what Mark Lagon had done, and John Miller had done and to go out and proselytize to foreign governments about this and to our own government was very effective. And now I think there are a lot of very strong legal tools in place to combat this. What we haven’t seen is the same degree of effort and the same degree of effectiveness on prevention. And I know this is something Sandie that you focus on a lot, but it’s something that ultimately has meant that today the overall clear operate for trafficking here in the United States is not where it needs to be. The overall identification rate for trafficking is not what it needs to be. The number of TVs is that has been issued has plummeted over the last couple of years. So there needs to be a course correction. We have we still have work to do. And this is, as Frederick Douglass said, and I’m paraphrasing here, I’m never going to be as open as I am, but without struggle, there is no progress. And that’s what we’re going to continue to be engaged with.


Sandie [00:07:08] All right. So that’s a good segue way into what you’re doing with Transparentem. And the idea that somehow there is a connection there with prevention, which everybody knows is my focus often. So, let’s talk about Transparentem and maybe a little bit about methods. And I love when I read on the website discreet. Tell me what that looks like.


Ben [00:07:41] Yeah. So we are very much a discreet nonprofit investigative group that uses those frontline reporting ethics and forensic methods to understand where all manner of severe human rights and environmental abuse happens in supply chains and the tweak on the traditional model of investigative journalism, which I practiced when I was writing for Bloomberg BusinessWeek and when I was writing for other outlets is that when I was writing for a publication, we would typically engage with a company that we in whose supply chain we’d investigated between forty-eight and seventy-two hours and kind of confront them with the full dossier that we developed many times over six, nine, 12 months. And that forty-eight-to-seventy-two-hour window before publication, I notice didn’t really give enough time for a strategic response. It gave enough time for a defensive response often. And that was a little frustrating to me because at the end of the day, if all that a corporation does is kill their contract with where the problem supplier, then essentially, they’re not making the lives of the workers at that supplier any safer, any better, any freer. So, our model is to take these carefully developed investigations, which in some cases take years, and go first to the brands and retailers that are the buyers of the products that are being made by suppliers that have some of these issues and giving them the first look at it and giving them a discrete opportunity to understand where the issues are to conduct their own diligence and then to roll up their sleeves and to get involved in making it right. And what we’ve seen, and this was really a conceit that hadn’t been tried before five, five years ago. And what we’ve seen is that for the most part, it’s very effective. There are some corporations that we haven’t been able to reach, but for the most part, we have. And what we’ve seen is that they have been willing to use their clout to varying degrees. But because we speak to groups of companies, there’s usually at least one that is willing to stand up and really do the right thing and to make it right by the workers. And that’s been very satisfying.


Sandie [00:10:18] So this changes how we’re doing the work. It changes the story of the workers. It changes the leadership of those corporations by creating an opportunity for them to make a course adjustment instead of defending their practices. So, let’s go back a step and look at how you investigate forced labor. What are some of the indicators, the abuses? How do you how do you do that?


Ben [00:10:53] So one of the rules that we have, and I hear my general counsel in my ear on this, is that we don’t get into too many details about methods. And this was true when I was working as a journalist as well. But fundamentally, I think as a general statement, what we do is the same thing as the best practice NGOs do in terms of creating safe environments for workers to speak their truth. And too often what we find in the industry that we focus on, we’ve been focused on apparel, footwear, and accessories for the last five years is that industry audits are checklist exercises that are not done in any way to really get at those hard truths. But there they’re are done as an exercise to check a box. And so going beyond that really requires a great deal of local knowledge. It requires a great deal of comfort in those environments. Frankly, it requires people that don’t look like me, which was true when I was a reporter as well. I would work with local teams. And it requires a lot of training on the part of our investigative team to learn the specific acute vulnerabilities that are present not only with forced labor situations but with gender-based violence situations, with child labor, and with other abusive working conditions.


Sandie [00:12:26] So you mentioned NGO best practices. So, can you give me some examples of the elements of those best practices for remediating forced labor?


Ben [00:12:37] Sure. And remediation is something that we hope to catalyze. I should be clear that we’re not pursuing a remediation organization but having worked on this for five years and having studied it very closely and critically, having recruited some of the best and brightest to our team from the industry, we have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t work. And frankly, it’s a consistently evolving picture and it should be a consistently evolving picture. We’ve heard from some of these suppliers that the things that we are pointing to as being facilitators of indicators of forced labor are what they considered best business practice 10 or 15 years ago, things like holding the passports of the workers, quote-unquote, for safekeeping, things like working through third party recruitment agencies that take care of their recruitment fees overseas. Well, both of those practices directly accrue to indicators of forced labor according to the ILO, the retention of identity documents restricts movement, restricts freedom of movement for vulnerable migrants. Payment of these recruitment fees very often results in debt bondage, results in workers being compelled to work to pay off debts to recruiters and being compelled to work for years and years to merely break even. Going beyond that, what we see over and over again are false promises that are made by these recruiters in the home countries where these workers originate from. And when they get to where they’re going, they’re making a fraction of what they were told they were going to be making. We found multiple cases where workers aren’t even working in the same industry. The health and safety conditions are not what they were led to believe. They’re there, in many cases, living in unsanitary quarters that were built for two people where 14 people are living on top of one another. These are specific cases that we’ve seen. And so fundamentally, redress and remediation means paying those workers back hard cash, getting that to them, fixing their living conditions so that they are sanitary and safe, but particularly important now and during the pandemic, of course, and making sure that they have control of their passports, making sure that they have contracts that are written in their own languages before they leave home. So, there’s a lot of work to be done here. And when I say it’s evolving, I’m primarily talking about the work that needs to be done around auditing because we can’t be the global cop for everything here, there needs to be an evolution of the auditing industry so that it is more inclusive. It is interlaced with independent NGOs that don’t necessarily get their pay from these companies directly but have a vested interest in making sure that the working populations are safe and free and of age. And I think that’s increasingly where the in fits and starts the least. The apparel, footwear, and accessories industry is moving.


Sandie [00:15:55] So I have so many responses to this incredible scope of your approach, one of the first things that strike me, though, is this idea of redress, restitution for the victims isn’t about shutting down the brands, the factories, all of this. And too often it feels to me, we’ve written our signs, we’ve sent letters, we’ve protested, and then we are successful in shutting down something kind of a whack a mole game. And we haven’t actually created a safe place for those victims. And you’re talking about what I’m looking at as a much more intentional, victim centered approach where we don’t get to put a notch on our belt that we shut down so-and-so company. I think that means a change in how we combat human trafficking.


Ben [00:17:01] Yeah, I mean, fundamentally, my belief is that this particular industry that we’re looking at, apparel, footwear and accessories since the Industrial Revolution has been the most important engine of human development country by country that humans have created. If you look at how many countries and communities within those countries have stepped up from subsistence agriculture, their first step into industrialization is often the apparel industry. It continues to be a beacon of hope for migrants, for internally absolute poor workers. So, we don’t want to do away with the industry. We don’t want to take a blowtorch to that opportunity. But what we are realizing and anyone who studies this industry for 30 seconds realizes is it has also led to a great deal of the kind of excesses, child labor, and abuses, forced labor, et cetera, that are crimes against humanity. And it’s led to a perpetuation of those. It’s led to a perpetuation of exploitation and inequality. The industry can do better. And so, what we really seek to do is catalyze that change within the industry, catalyze that systemic shift in the industry, but fundamentally not to do away with these jobs because these jobs are absolutely elemental and essential for so many workers. And I should say we focus on the factories where we find these endemic problems. And many times, when we come into the brands and the brands begin their work and they begin their remediation, they will go to the workers and they will say, do you want to go home? And invariably a few workers will say, absolutely, we’ve had enough. The exploitation here is too great. Just give us our money and send us home. More often than not, though, they want the jobs that they were originally promised. They just want to be paid. They don’t want to be exploited anymore. And so, the very satisfying piece of this is that we’ve been able to see and track that in more than a few cases that’s happened. And the north of three million dollars that have gone back as a result of this to individual workers as a result of several engagements to individual workers, I think is a real signal that for workers who for whom a retirement fund is ten thousand dollars, that’s a tremendous amount. It’s a life changing event.


Sandie [00:19:31] And I’ve seen exactly the same thing right here in Southern California. And you probably know that the textile industry here is pretty large. So, listeners buying something that says made in the USA doesn’t mean you’re buying a slave for a product or exploitation free. So, the survivor interviews I’ve done, they want restitution. Their definition of justice is to get what they thought they were going to get. Their definition of justice isn’t just putting the bad guy in prison. That doesn’t move their future forward. So, when I talk to corporate leaders, it’s a little mushy. And I think I have a lot to learn from you because I have visited a couple of big CEOs and they pat me on the back. They assure me that, wow, it’s good to hear your voice. And they show me a pledge to do better by corporate social responsibility. What’s the long view here?


Ben [00:20:39] Yeah, so I don’t have a problem per say with corporate social responsibility, but pledges are no or no substitute for material justice. And at the end of the day, pledges, accords, agreements, I think are very often an important predicate. But what really needs to happen is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing when it occurs and action to address it and to make the workers whole.


Sandie [00:21:13] So when we’re talking about behind the scenes, how do we leverage at the beginning of this podcast, you talked about the power dynamic moving from like 60 percent to 80 percent more in this corporate environment. And I’m pretty interested in how we educate the people who hold that power.


Ben [00:21:40] Yeah, I think you have to get their attention and get them focused on this as a as a material concern to them in their businesses. And I think I mentioned some of the legislative changes that have happened over the last 10 years. And really starting in California with the California Transparency and Supply Chains Act, there has been, I think, real tangible movement towards greater accountability frameworks. To my eye, the most the most salient and most effective, which has been used an increasing amount. And I will give the Trump administration quite a bit of credit for this since the loophole was closed in nineteen thirty law at the end of the Obama administration. The tool is, is the withhold release orders that are authorized under that act that allow for the seizure of shipments into the United States of goods that are made with force and child labor. And critically, it puts the burden of proof on the importer to prove that those goods are, in fact, free of forced labor before the withhold release order can be lifted. That means real material impact. Millions of dollars can be lost if companies don’t do their job, if they don’t understand, if they don’t know their suppliers well enough, if they don’t accurately diligence their suppliers, if they if they can’t prove at the end of the day that the working conditions are safe for exploitation, I think that’s really interesting. I think that’s a that’s a step forward. And it’s a very potent tool that that should get not only the attention of executives at these corporations, at these important corporations, but it should get the attention of the investors, particularly the institutional investors that invest in those companies because it accrues to those companies. Bottom line. And fundamentally, I think there is a more informed investor class today than there was 10 years ago. And that’s a good thing. But again, it’s a work in progress.


Sandie [00:23:53] So it’s been very exciting because I live like 20 minutes from one of our largest ports on the west coast of California. And when the Customs and Border Patrol have enacted a withholding WRO, it makes big news and not just in our anti-trafficking world, but in the business world. And when the California Supply Chain Transparency Act was passed in 2010, many of us were very excited, but we felt like there were no teeth. And now we actually have some teeth from the federal level and more and more attention to how we can encourage educating our corporations here. And I think education is a huge piece of how we’re going to do this and move away from the whack a mole strategy that didn’t actually always help the victims in a victim-centered approach. OK, Ben, where are we going? And I want to loop back to the beginning about prevention. So, what does prevention look like in your eyes?


Ben [00:25:11] So prevention of trafficking to me fundamentally involves some basic elements of development, but really targeted development. You know, as I said at the end of my book, The War on Diarrhea may not have the same sexy ring as the war on slavery, but when diarrhea is the number one killer of children in the developing world, needless, needless deaths. Right. And when so many desperately poor families are faced with a health crisis, go into debt bondage as a solution, could we not invest in preventing those needless deaths and preventing that health crisis and preventing that thus preventing that death, that that debt bondage? You know, it’s a this is fundamentally why we are focused on industry because industry broken out are millions of jobs, billions of jobs. If you go across industries, the apparel industry, 70 million jobs alone, this is a place that is a tremendous opportunity. It is also a place where there is forced labor. It harbors that it doesn’t need to. And so, prevention for me is about creating jobs that are actually what they say they are, which is opportunities, which is pathways to mobility, which is pathways to prosperity. And there are best practices out there. We’ve seen suppliers that when we approach them say this is not who we are, fundamentally this is not who we are, and they change. And that to me is exhilarating because if that can be scaled and ultimately if those companies that won’t change are put out of business and those companies that will change grow to be the norm to dominate the market, then then we’re talking about prevention at scale. And for me, that’s exciting.


Sandie [00:27:19] I love that. And education is a key to helping people know where to begin that prevention. Digging a well so kids have clean water to prevent diarrhea. Is prevention factor in as far as education? One of the challenges that I’ve had is and I’ve been able to get in front of some corporate leaders here in California and they’re just like, this is so much information. And so, I found a new way to use the sweat and toil app that Department of Labor produced and has thousands of pages of research behind this app. You can go to the grocery store and you can look and see what products are being produced and have been on the shelves in our consumer platform here that use child forced labor, adult forced labor and make a decision not to purchase that. Well, that’s a pretty whack a mole kind of idea from my perspective. But now I’m having my students and I’m sharing with corporate leaders that you can actually use this to find out where you might expect the next WPRO to happen with those kinds of products. So, you can look ahead and see it on an app on your phone. And it seems like a very simple tool, but it is a way for us to begin to be more tuned in to what’s happening across the world because we are all connected, this 80 percent number. I’m just still reeling from that because we think we have governmental borders and yet corporate reach is not restricted to geographical boundaries.


Ben [00:29:13] Yeah, I’m so glad you mentioned that. And I would say Justin Dillons, beautifully designed slavery footprint as well as it is, is a very interesting place to start. For the uninitiated, I want to encourage you and your students and anybody listening to think about developing something here. I think in an app that essentially allows us to understand what the impact of what we buy is in real terms and allows us to make decisions accordingly and allows us to kind of give ourselves a score at the end of the day and critically, critically, to improve on that score iteratively and intentionally. That is something that I think could appeal to a lot of folks. I think it would be potentially a redeeming use of social media for once to actually, you know, to have platforms where people talk about their ethical score. And ethical consumption score, I think there’s a lot that can be done there, and the fundamental thing is all of us have a role to play and all of us. All of us do play a role every day when we click on that on that Amazon, AbioCor. And we need to think about that.


Sandie [00:30:30] This is great, Ben. This has been a wonderful conversation. I can’t thank you enough for joining us today. And we will come back and talk to you again.


Ben [00:30:41] Thank you so much, Sandie. Thank you.


Dave [00:30:43] Ben and Sandie. Thank you so much for this conversation. Ben, thank you so much for your work. And we are inviting you to take the next step as well. You’ll hop online and download a copy of Sandie book. It’s absolutely free The Five Things You Must Know: a Quick Start Guide to ending human trafficking. The guide will teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. It’s absolutely free. You can get access by going over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. That is also where will have all the links for today’s conversation with Ben. The resources that we mentioned in Sandie mentioned the app that we talked about on the show before. We’ll link to all of that, of course. And in addition, at Endinghumantrafficking.org, you’ll find information about the anti-human trafficking certificate program here at Vanguard University. All the details are there online. And we will be back for our next conversation here on the podcast in two weeks Sandie. Always a pleasure. See you in two weeks.


Sandie [00:31:42] Thanks.


Dave [00:31:43] Take care, everyone.

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