267 – The Intersection of Business and Human Rights, with John Cotton Richmond

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Ambassador John Cotton Richmond to discuss the intersection of business and human rights. Together they look at how the conversations in board rooms is shifting to discussions on their supply chains, exploitation, and other impacts that their business has on the communities around them.

John Cotton Richmond

Ambassador Richmond is an attorney and diplomat focused on ethical business, human rights, democracy, and rule of law. He served in the country’s highest position dedicated to combating human trafficking as a U.S. Ambassador where he led U.S. foreign policy in the global fight for freedom. As a Partner at Dentons, Ambassador Richmond helps companies keep their supply chains and workforces free of human trafficking. He was named one of the federal “Prosecutors of the Year,” after a decade successfully trying complex police misconduct, cross-burning, neo-Nazi hate crimes, forced labor, and sex trafficking cases across the country. Ambassador Richmond is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, frequent expert for the United Nations, and frequent speaker on justice, freedom, leadership, faith, and vocation.

Key Points

  • Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) – corporations paying more attention to how their supply chain affects people
  • Disclosure requirements and public awareness is shifting the conversation in corporate boardrooms to look more closely at their sourcing.
  • Business can address global poverty because a well run business that pays fair wages leads to economic prosperity for families and communities.
  • Addressing poverty as we emerge from the pandemic:
    • investing in surrounding communities that were most damaged
    • improving the rule of law
    • developing programs that provide tailored services for survivors
  • Consumers play a part through how we vote with our wallet and putting pressure on companies for ethical sourcing.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast, this is episode number 267, The Intersection of Business and Human Rights with John Cotton Richmond.

Production Credits [00:00:10] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

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

Sandie [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:38] 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 not only an expert, but a dear friend in the work that we’ve been doing to end human trafficking. I’m so glad to welcome John Cotton Richmond back to the show. His career has taken him to the front lines in the global battle against human trafficking as a partner at Denton’s, the world’s largest law firm. He focuses on the intersection between business and human rights. John advises companies on how to keep their supply chains free of forced labor and their workforces free of sex trafficking. Before joining Denton’s, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed John, and he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons from 2018 to 2021, serving in the nation’s highest ranking position dedicated to human trafficking. John led U.S. foreign policy related to modern slavery and coordinated the U.S. government’s response to the crime. Mr. Ambassador, always a pleasure to have you on the show. Welcome back.

John [00:01:41] Thank you. It’s great to be with you.

Sandie [00:01:43] I’m really excited about this conversation today, ambassador, because a lot has changed since the last time we had a conversation. And I want to kind of start right there. You’ve transitioned from public service to the private sector, and I want to understand how that changes your perspective and especially the kinds of questions you’re asking now.

John [00:02:11] Hmm. It’s been a remarkable journey. You know, I started off in the private sector years ago before my family and I moved to India and really began doing work in the area of forced labor and sex trafficking. So now I’ve worked for the private sector. I’ve worked for two different NGOs and as well as in the government, working both as a federal prosecutor and then serving as ambassador. And now I get to work in a large law firm again trying to carve out a new area around business and human rights. And it’s been such a privilege to get to view the issue from so many different perspectives, and it has changed some of the questions I’m asking. But one of the things that I found that’s essential regardless of the seat that we currently hold, is to make sure that we’re reviewing the issue through the lens of the individual because it’s individual people whom traffickers are forcing to work or compelling to engage in commercial sex acts, and they’re the ones who are bearing the massive weight of exploitation. And so as as we study these issues, when we consider legal or policy interventions or how to provide care. I think the idea that grounds us in reality is the individual people who need freedom and these are people that you’ve met that I’ve met. They have hopes and dreams and fears. And I think it’s important regardless of where we’re sitting, to resist dehumanizing them by rolling them up and just one giant collective statistic or naming them as a generic population, but really keeping our focus on the individuals. As I’ve moved from government into the private sector again, it’s caused me to recognize that businesses are not the adversary. Traffickers are our adversaries and businesses can play an important role in pushing down through their supply chains. Hope and good and prosperity that could actually benefit workers all over the world. And we want to make sure that their businesses both bear the burden of accountability, but also see the opportunity to do what’s right around the issue of human trafficking.

Sandie [00:04:18] I really loved that statement, and it reminds me of the conversation that I had a few months ago with Ben Skinner, who made the point that holding companies accountable for their actions is important. But just holding them accountable and having punitive things tied to that isn’t going to change the big landscape. Worksites get shut down, the companies move and then workers are in a worse situation than they may have been before. So what else do we need to understand about making businesses collaborators in the ending human trafficking sector?

John [00:05:02] You know, I think it’s an it’s important for us to remember that it’s a whole of government approach. It’s a whole of business approach. We need all these different pressures coming together around the same issue. So we do need to hold businesses accountable and sometimes they do need to shut down their operations or start sourcing from a different vendor. But the reality is if they stop sourcing from a vendor that could actually do great harm to individual workers that are at the worksite. But of course, if they’re being forced to work harms already occurring. And so we can’t just allow that to continue. So I think the businesses are important partners. Where they’re knowingly profiting by participating in a trafficking venture, they ought to be held accountable. They ought to be punished. But the reality is we can’t just shift burden from governments who are underperforming to businesses and expect the problem to be solved. It’s going to take governments stepping up and actually doing the things that their laws require them to do and to do them really well, both in holding traffickers accountable and caring for survivors. And we have to make sure that businesses are held accountable when they’re in the wrong, as well as using the power of their commerce and their procurement to actually be a force of good in this work. It’s not going to be one or the other, it’s going to be both. Wow.

Sandie [00:06:20] So I was introduced by a colleague who works in corporate social responsibility to some new frameworks that are emerging. They’ve been there. I just didn’t know much about them, and now I’m reading everything I can get my hands on about this idea of ESG, environmental, social governance. And that governance perspective, I have a tendency to see as governments like in the Trafficking in Persons report; How is this government doing? But the governance in a corporation, in the boardroom? That sounds like where your perspective is going to have a great deal of impact because companies want to reduce risk, right?

John [00:07:15] Absolutely, and we’re seeing a huge change around this. In some ways, I think the new ESG framework, this three letter acronym that no one really knew four years ago and now everyone’s talking about, in some ways it’s helpful because it’s focusing some attention on important issues, in other ways I feel like it’s so broad that it can feel overwhelming to people. But what is good is that we are seeing boardrooms for big companies around the world, as well as medium and small sized companies around the world, paying attention to issues of people in a new way. And how does how does their commerce, how does their business actually impact various stakeholders up and down the supply chain and value chain? So I think that attention is good. But what we’re seeing is a shift from corporate social responsibility or just corporate philanthropy, that is businesses that are trying to, in a sense, engage in a little bit of corporate charity, do good things, invest in a few projects. We’re seeing it shift into business operations and compliance, a shift from CSR to the C-suite and general counsels paying attention to this because there are new risks, both from investors paying attention. We’re looking at a bunch of new SCC disclosures from the Security and Exchange Commission for publicly traded companies about what they’re doing on all sorts of issues from environmental restrictions, as well as human rights, as well as diversity and inclusion. And so people are paying attention. And then we’re seeing some new frameworks that really started in California, in many ways, around disclosures through the California Transparency Act and then ultimately in the UK and Australia Modern Slavery Acts that required companies to disclose what, if anything, they’re doing about forced labor and their supply chains. And now we’re seeing another new evolution kind of building on the disclosure framework into the diligence framework in Europe, where we’re seeing not just a requirement to disclose what, if anything, you’re doing, but a mandate on companies to map their supply chains to know if their human rights and environmental abuses within their supply chains, and then hold those companies accountable for what’s happening in their suppliers. When that takes effect, that will be a massive transition.

Sandie [00:09:29] Well, and I’m glad you mentioned our California Supply Chain Transparency Act. We were really excited when it passed in 2010, but we were also disappointed because there were no teeth. So it seems like we’re maturing to a point where that will be the next step.

John [00:09:49] Yeah, I think that’s right. And there was criticism of the California Transparency Act as well as the Modern Slavery Acts. But I really see this as a crawl, walk, run progression. I don’t know that we’d be where we are right now in Europe if California hadn’t taken the lead with with the basic disclosure requirements. And so I think they’re building on each other, but we’re also seeing  accountability coming in the form of benefiting financially cases. So the Trafficking Victims Protection Act 2000 included corporate accountability from the very start. It said that anyone who’s just benefiting financially or otherwise from engaging in a venture that has trafficking in it can be held accountable. And we’re seeing more and more civil suits being brought against companies in federal courts around the United States that are trying to hold companies accountable for knowingly engaging in trafficking activities.

Sandie [00:10:39] So the public is very aware of supply chains right now, especially here in California, where we’ve had to deal with the pollution impact and the market impact on supply chain that our block ships are queued outside our ports. We had an oil leak because of that. So the community is in a state of wanting to know how to respond to this and when they find out that there is some sort of connection to human trafficking, and particularly labor trafficking, they’re kind of surprised because they were looking at it from the perspective of inconvenience. They can’t get the rubber gloves you posted on Twitter about the withholding orders there. And so how are we going to leverage that community, that public outcry about these kinds of supply chain issues? I think it’s an opportunity we don’t want to miss.

John [00:11:46] I think it is too, Sandie. I think that making sure that there’s not forced labor coming into our ports, that is goods that are tainted with forced labor, coming in our ports is critical. I’ve been very encouraged that since 2015, we’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of times that Customs and Border Protection have blocked goods where they believe that they were made by forced laborers either entirely or just in part by forced labor. And that’s crimping supply chains, and it’s making it more difficult for companies to operate. It’s removing the predictability in the certainty of the just in time procurement. But then we also have just natural economic pressures that are happening that are interfering with supply chains. So I think raising these issues, making sure that people are aware that whether it is the goods being transported or it’s the people laboring on the ships themselves who are catching fish or moving goods on ships, making sure they’re not engaged in forced labor. We want to make sure that the companies that are participating in forced labor activities are held accountable, and I think raising the issue via supply chains could be really powerful.

Sandie [00:12:56] So when you’re talking about the intersection of human rights and business, how can I communicate that in my community when they’re talking about the backlog in supply chains? It comes up in nearly every conversation in our community. It’s so close to home.

John [00:13:19] In one way is I think people can be a voice. They can raise their voices either individually or collectively to businesses and ask them, What are you doing to make sure that there is not goods on the shelves, parts and produce in your products that were made by forced laborers? Just asking the question, demanding that companies pay attention to this can create a huge impact. I think we also need to be ready to bear some inconvenience. Perhaps it will take longer to get goods for a period of time. But I think it’s going to be important that as we build out prosperity around the world through commerce, which is what has happened, that’s lifted so many people out of poverty, that we make sure that we don’t do it on the backs of exploitation.

Sandie [00:14:05] Hmm. So I interviewed recently someone working in the fishing industry in Ghana who found out that rescuing kids who were being used to fish didn’t actually make any difference in the long run, unless there was the lift out of poverty for the whole community, and new business models and families were supported. And so what started out as a child rescue mission turned into a community development issue. And I’m hearing some of that from the things that you’re saying, what I’ve been reading on your website, which everybody you can find more information on ambassador’s website, johncottonrichmond.com. And I have to tell you, he already has an easy download, 10 Things Everyone Should Know that I recommend that you start with as you start going into this studying the intersection with human trafficking and business. So you just mentioned poverty, and I’d love to hear your ideas on how businesses will be part of that growing awareness.

John [00:15:32] You know, I appreciate that Sandie. You know, we know that poverty is one of the biggest vulnerabilities that is out there, that a community can suffer, that an individual can suffer. We also know that the head of the World Food Program, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize last year estimated that the global shutdown orders in response to COVID have driven half a billion people who weren’t in poverty into global poverty. That is, we have more vulnerable people now than before we started this pandemic, which means that traffickers who are seeking to target vulnerable people have far more people to choose from. In a very real way, traffickers are fishing in a stocked pond. They can find vulnerable people quickly. And I think it’s also important to note that vulnerabilities don’t cause human trafficking. There’s lots of vulnerable people, people in poverty who are human trafficking victims. It’s not causal, but it is correlated. We know that traffickers target vulnerable people because they believe they’re easier to control. They’re easier to compel to engage in illicit business. But businesses that are operating for good, which is most companies, most companies don’t want forced labor in their supply chain. They’re just not sure how to go about figuring out if it’s there and if it is, what to do about it. But traffickers are interfering with markets. Traffickers are interfering with commerce and business because they’re not paying their laborers. They’re not paying them at all. They’re not paying them a fair wage. And they’re gaining an unfair advantage in the marketplace with companies that are doing it fairly and paying a market wage. And so what traffickers are doing is not a form of business. It’s counter to business. And we want business to flourish because we know that businesses can generate prosperity and that can lift people out of poverty, you can give them the opportunity to have a good job to provide for their families and to educate their children in the future. So I think business has an incredibly important role to play when it’s operating well, when it’s not operating well, when it’s knowingly engaging with forced labor, it needs to be held accountable. But I think we want to make sure that we still hold governments responsible as well, because only governments can actually use legal coercion to stop a trafficker from harming an individual person. And governments are not doing well at this, in a very real way they’re underperforming. We’ve seen a a global reduction in the prosecution of traffickers in 48% since 2015. Almost we dropped almost in half. And during that same time, governments have identified more victims than ever before. We’ve actually seen a 40% increase in victims identified since 2015. So we have this major imbalance, that is we’re identifying more victims than ever before, and we’re holding fewer traffickers accountable than ever before. And this is a risk reward scenario for economically motivated traffickers. They see very low risk of accountability, and they see a very high opportunity for illicit return for profits on the backs of exploitation. So governments need to do their part and businesses need to be held accountable when they’re involved in the trafficking ventures. When they when they’re knowing about it, we need all of these things to come around and then we need the development piece that you talked about. We actually need international development. We need good communities, families, and opportunities for people to have hope that there is a better future. And when we get all three pieces that puzzle with businesses as well as governments as well as communities involved, I think we’re going to be able to have a significant impact.

Sandie [00:19:06] I’ve been looking at like the ILAB report that included a significant increase in the number of child victims of forced labor. And the concern that you mentioned as far as plummeting into poverty as a part of the pandemic. How do you think we’re going to pull out of that as we emerge from the pandemic?

John [00:19:35] That is a million dollar question. I wish I had a quick answer that would just solve that problem. I think it’s going to be a number of things. I think it’s going to require huge investment in the economies that are surrounding the communities that have been most, most damaged by the pandemic and the response to it. I think it’s going to require building out the infrastructure in these communities. And when I say infrastructure, I’m not just thinking about water and sewer or electricity. I’m thinking about the public justice delivery system, the opportunity for rule of law. For companies to be able to operate with clarity and predictability. For individuals to be able to redress grievances, to go to the police when a crime has been committed, for disputes to be sorted out. We need rule of law. Where rule of law can come, we can see huge opportunities for development. And we need to build out the infrastructure around social service delivery systems to make sure that we can actually get the care that survivors need to the individual survivors and tailor it to that, where we’re not shoehorning survivors into pre-built programs for a generic individual, but we’re tailoring a protection program just for them based on the trauma they experienced in the way they responded to it. And so I think it’s going to require a big investment, a big investment in infrastructure across the board. But I think we have to be open to doing things a little bit differently. It’s not foreign assistance in the way that we’ve always done it. We need to move beyond just flooding the field with money and instead looking towards actual impact that those investments can have that can produce real results.

Sandie [00:21:13] Wow. So you said a lot there that we could just jump off to, but one of the things that really caught my attention was this idea of shoehorning survivors into programs, and we just did a podcast on human-centered design that I recommend people go back and listen to to understand how important that is in our survivor care agenda. The comprehensive description that you just gave us, a rule of law and how we measure impact, all of those things require a community that’s going to collaborate from absolutely every sector. And I’m curious how you with your new address basically in international law and your global perspective, how are you seeing opportunities for hope in change?

John [00:22:18] You know, I think that hope comes from knowing that individuals and businesses can make a difference when they’re operating out of goodwill and wanting to see a difference. If you look at the last 20 years, it’s been all about getting consensus that trafficking is wrong. And we’ve done an amazing job. I don’t think we should overlook it too quickly that every country in the world now has a law against human trafficking. That was not inevitable. That should be cheered and celebrated. We should erect a monument of some sort to remind us of the hard work that that took to get for the first time in all of human history. We have global consensus that the buying and selling of people, that the renting of bodies is legally wrong. That’s incredible. And we have all these new tools in every country in the world, international instruments. We’ve got all sorts of agreements, proclamations. All these are tools in our toolbox. And I think the challenge for this next generation and the reason we can have hope is that now we can take those tools and begin to use them, to begin to come up with new and creative ways to actually take those tools and begin to apply them to the problem of freedom where people do not have it, to the problem that traffickers have created by taking vulnerable people and exploiting them. And we’re seeing that; we’re seeing a professionalization, I think, within the anti-trafficking movement where we’re going beyond kind of our initial responses that were driven by anecdote and passion. And we’re thinking about it in a more strategic way, in a more collaborative way where we’re engaging different strategies in different places, where we’re trying to understand metrics better and measure results. This is going to be an exciting 20 years. When we think about actually taking the tools that we’ve created and using them for good, whether it’s the whole business who’s accountable for benefiting, whether it’s to deal with supply chains, whether it’s to take it from kind of where we’re banning imports around the world, how we’re thinking about ESG, how we’re thinking about making sure that consumers are aware of the supply chain, whether it’s cobalt in our batteries or forced labor in our chocolate consumption, we can actually begin to do something now. We’ve built a platform and now we can stand upon it to proclaim freedom for many. And I think that generates a lot of hope.

Sandie [00:24:37] You mention the chocolate and my students have been working on that kind of issue and the fast fashion for several years now. And what has really struck me is they are going out now and they’re in the business sector and they’re actually applying these principles. So when you talk about professionalism, will you speak to students in any school, any university, whether undergrad or grad? What do you see as their role in this next 20 years?

John [00:25:14] I think students have a huge opportunity, particularly you mentioned fast fashion and chocolate, all these different things. And one thing I would encourage students to know is that their desire for a chocolate bar or their desire for a bargain at the store is not the problem. The problem is that the traffickers, whether it be individuals or companies that are actually doing the exploitation. But if we could use the power of our procurement, if we think about our own personal procurement policy, what are we buying and what are the assurances we have that these companies are operating fairly for the workers that are making the products? I think that can have a very significant impact. We know that an individual student may not be able to get to West Africa or over to the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo or into Malaysia or any other country where we know forced labor is rampant. But they can apply pressure to their favorite brands. They can vote with their pocketbook. They can make sure that where they that they can make the most informed and thoughtful decisions possible. And I think that can drive a lot of change.

Sandie [00:26:22] I love it that the emerging leaders and a lot of these businesses have already been thinking about this, and I do believe that they will vote with their procurement dollars as well. So I’m encouraged by that. As we wind up, what is the one thing you have changed your mind about the most over this transition?

John [00:26:48] Hmm. Oh, it’s such a thoughtful question, Sandie. I think I’m still in the transition a bit. I’ve only joined Denton’s about six months ago, so I’m I’m still fairly new and thinking about this from different, another new perspective. But I think that one place where my mind has changed is understanding the importance of applying pressure from multiple sides at the same time. You know, normally we’re in one role at a time and we apply pressure there. But if we can actually apply pressure on traffickers operations from a business perspective, as well as from an advocacy perspective, from a governmental perspective, from and even from an academic perspective, just writing about this and understanding it. It’s going to take everybody doing all the things that are required at the same time in order to have a significant impact.

Sandie [00:27:40] Thank you so much. If you want to follow John, go to his website; tell us the website again?

John [00:27:47] The website’s JohnCottonRichmond.com and the social media handles just JohnRichmond1.

Sandie [00:27:53] Thank you so much, and we’re looking forward to hosting you here at Vanguard in February, and I’m sure we’ll have a great conversation there too.

John [00:28:02] It’s going to be wonderful. I’m really looking forward to it. And Sandie, thank you for your leadership over the years in this field. I’m so grateful for you.

Sandie [00:28:09] Thank you. I just like talking to people and finding out who knows what and sharing that with my community because I do believe we all have to do what we can as part of that collaboration. And I love the idea of pressure points from multiple perspectives, so we’ll start looking at more of that with our work at Vanguard as well.

Dave [00:28:36] John and Sandie, thank you so much for this conversation. I would encourage you to visit John’s website, johncottonrichmond.com And he’s got a wonderful resource there: 10 Things Everyone Should Know About Human Trafficking. Great compliment to what we’re doing here on the podcast. And of course, you can find that link and all the notes at Endinghumantrafficking.org. In addition to all of the past episodes and all the things we’ve mentioned in this conversation today. In addition, Sandie mentioned Vanguard University where the Global Center for Women in Justice is housed and our Ensure Justice conference is coming up March 4th and 5th, 2022. You can find details at gcwj.org/ensurejustice. And we will be back with you for our next conversation in two weeks. Thanks, Sandie.

Sandie [00:29:22] Thanks, Dave.

Dave [00:29:23] Take care, everyone.



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