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Stopping Human Trafficking In The Time Of COVID-19: A Conversation With Lori L. Cohen, Executive Director Of ECPAT-USA

Even during a pandemic that has significantly changed our collective way of life, the scourge of human trafficking rages on and those who seek to prey on others have simply adjusted their tactics. While some governments around the world have been forced to reallocate resources typically earmarked for counter-trafficking efforts, the push to require the private sector to step up its efforts continues. As one example, legislation to require large global businesses to certify that there is no forced labor in their supply chains was recently introduced in the U.S. Senate.

In honor of the United Nations World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, I spoke with Lori L. Cohen, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, a leading anti-trafficking policy organization in the United States, about what corporate institutions should be aware of right now so that they might contribute to the fight against human trafficking. Here is our conversation.

Julie Myers Wood: Thank you for joining me, Lori, and for the work that you do to protect others. In a time of global crisis like this, what is the one thing you feel businesses should know to remain vigilant in the fight against human trafficking?

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Lori L. Cohen: It is important for businesses to understand that trafficking and exploitation are still happening. In fact, research has shown that in times of crisis, including during this current pandemic, trafficking and exploitation increase dramatically. While it can feel like everything around us is changing constantly, the risks to children remain. As your business is adjusting to this “new normal,” make sure you are still following established anti-trafficking protocols and policies.

Wood: What are some common types of behaviors or red flags businesses should be looking out for in their customer base or supply chain, in order to stop human trafficking during the pandemic? Do you think multinational corporations are doing enough today to properly monitor their supply chains?

Cohen: It’s important to note that trafficking indicators often overlap and encountering any one of them isn’t necessarily proof of human trafficking. Human trafficking often occurs within a cycle of abuse and control, so you should look for signs of a controlling interaction. It could be a gesture or look from the trafficker that provokes fear. You may hear threats or insults. You might also see signs of physical abuse.

Businesses should also closely examine their supply chains to ensure labor trafficking is not occurring as part of the creation and distribution of products. While signs of trafficking might not exist in the last piece of the chain, trafficking may exist further down the line. Goods are sourced and produced far from where they are bought, successively changing hands along complex global supply chains. The outsourcing of production often creates an environment in which there is little insight into the conditions under which people labor. Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation as they work away from their support systems, in foreign countries where they don’t speak the language and are often cut off from society.

It is critical for industries to have standards to ensure supply chains do not promote trafficking. However, it is essential that monitoring doesn’t only look at labor trafficking but also looks at the sexual exploitation of children because sexual abuse occurs in both labor and sex trafficking situations.

In general, trust your gut. We’ve heard from many employees who identified and reported a suspected instance of trafficking because something just feels and seems “off” about what they are observing.

Wood: Surely, most businesses are against child trafficking in moral terms. But what sorts of risks do businesses take if they don’t take child trafficking seriously?

Cohen: Children’s rights are not just a moral issue, but a human rights concern based on internationally recognized law. As global citizens, industries must take a stand and protect children from being exploited.

Additionally, if a business doesn’t take trafficking seriously, it runs the risk of damage to its reputation, customer and employee safety and its bottom line. Public awareness of the dangers of human trafficking is at an all-time high, and if consumers learn a company is somehow implicated in a human trafficking matter, it will absolutely undermine public trust for that business. Proactive steps and messaging help to establish the company as a responsible brand. Trafficking is often connected to other criminal activities, including drugs and violent assault, which can jeopardize everyone’s safety. A company’s finances can be impacted by negative publicity, not to mention potential exposure to civil and criminal liability.

Wood: How has this pandemic created increased or unique risks to businesses when it comes to child trafficking?

Cohen: In general, this pandemic has had very negative consequences on businesses, and many are struggling to stay afloat during these trying economic circumstances. The decreased spending overall and the loss of employment for many people have led individuals to become more desperate to find ways to make money to satisfy their most basic needs. This has made individuals and communities who were already vulnerable to traffickers even more so. As I discussed previously, we’ve already seen statistics that show a general increase in reports of online exploitation since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wood: What types of risks exist for different types of industries?

Cohen: Regardless of the industry, your company is both affected by and may even indirectly and unintentionally facilitate the exploitation of children. For example, tech companies must ensure that child sexual abuse material (CSAM) is not being displayed, stored or shared on their platforms. Hotels run the risk of facilitating sex or labor trafficking on their properties and airlines could potentially be used to transport victims. It is important to learn more about the issue to better understand your business’ role in trafficking prevention.

Wood: Your global organization has worked with many prominent organizations around the world, but your work is particularly focused in the United States. What common misconceptions about trafficking have you found businesses frequently hold?

Cohen: The biggest misconception is held not just by businesses, but also by individuals and that is human trafficking does not happen in the United States. Trafficking takes place globally and within the United States, and trafficking has been reported in all 50 states. While it can happen to any child, often traffickers target children from vulnerable and underserved populations.

For businesses, specifically, they should understand that trafficking doesn’t just happen in illegal or underground industries. I think this partially has to do with another misconception that human trafficking and human smuggling are one and the same, when in fact, under U.S. law, a victim does not have to be transported for a situation to be considered human trafficking. In reality, human trafficking has been reported in a wide range of industries.

Wood: Should every business have an anti-trafficking policy? What are the most important items to include?

Cohen: In general, we believe companies of all sizes and structures should anticipate potential risks of trafficking, even if exploitation has not been identified previously as an issue for the business. This includes creating anti-trafficking policies.

First, it is imperative for a company to include a basic policy against human trafficking in its employee handbook. Beyond that, companies should also consider how these policies and values can be communicated externally. For example, you can also include a clause in contracts to inform partners about the company’s anti-human trafficking and child exploitation policies and set a zero-tolerance tone for suppliers. If any company is looking for more resources about such policies, we have sample language available on our website.

Additionally, if your company is committed to taking a leadership role on anti-trafficking, our program, The Code, is regarded as the gold standard for socially responsible businesses. The Code gives companies the information, tools and support they need to ensure the prevention of child sexual exploitation and that trafficking is a top priority. The Code has been adopted by leading companies in various industries throughout the U.S. and globally.

Wood: What basic protocols should be followed for employees and executives who suspect these crimes are being committed within or related to their workplace?

Cohen: First, if there’s an emergency and someone is in immediate danger, call 911 and report the incident right away. You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1-800-843-5678). Reports made to the hotline are confidential and you can remain anonymous. When making a report, be sure to take note of as much as you can about the situation, including the date and time of the suspected incident, description of individuals involved (including tattoos, physical identifiers, hair color, approximate age), any names mentioned and a summary of the situation.

It’s also important that you do not try to intervene in a situation of suspected trafficking directly. Do not confront the victim or trafficker, since this can put both you and the victim in danger.

Wood: What other steps can businesses take to prevent and disrupt child trafficking?

Cohen: Companies that acknowledge their role and responsibility in recognizing and preventing child sex trafficking are key to ending exploitation. First, and most importantly, you can raise awareness of this issue. As I discussed before, there is a large misconception that human trafficking does not happen in the United States. This is the first hurdle any anti-trafficking work must overcome.

Then, engage your employees. Talk about this issue. Host a webinar to discuss how trafficking impacts your company both directly and indirectly. Plan a fundraiser for organizations that fight trafficking and support survivors. Get involved with social media campaigns (including World Day Against Trafficking on July 30 and National Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January). All of these are small ways to raise awareness of the issue and send a signal to your employees and your customers that your company is a champion for children.

Wood: Speaking generally, what should companies and individuals be on the lookout for when they want to get more involved with a not-for-profit to ensure they are donating/volunteering with a reputable organization?

Cohen: If you are thinking about getting significantly involved with any non-profit organization, the first step is to do your homework. There are several websites, including the IRS Nonprofit Charities Database, GuideStar and the Better Business Bureau, that maintain searchable lists online of organizations that have been designated as a 501(c)3 and their current financial information. If a nonprofit does not have an up-to-date 990 form, I would strongly advise not making a financial contribution to the organization.

From there, review the organization’s website. The site should include clear information about the nonprofit’s programs and use of donations or other funding sources. Read their blog or sign up for their newsletter to learn more about their most recent work. For an organization that follows best practices, its annual report should be available online, another good way to ensure you’re supporting a reputable organization.

Wood: Thank you so much for your time, Lori. This has been eye-opening and truly informative. While there is clearly still much to be done in the fight against human trafficking, it is good to know there are organizations like ECPAT-USA advocating for strong governmental policies to help end the exploitation of children. However, the work you do with private sector businesses to promote their own corporate responsibility in this space is equally important. Whether it’s a small business or a large multinational corporation, every company has the responsibility to do its part in this battle. With collective action, we can help protect the most vulnerable among us.

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