Remarks at the White House Forum on Combating Human Trafficking in Supply Chains

John Kerry
Secretary of State
White House
Washington, DC
January 29, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Good morning, everybody. And thank you very, very much. Tina, thanks. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to this fight against modern slavery – and that’s exactly what it is – Tina sets the gold standard, and I mean that. And she’s a hands-on manager with a full understanding of the role that technology can play in helping to be able to combat human trafficking, enhance the tools that we have to be able to create accountability, understand what is happening, track the statistics and make sure that this is not a crime for which there is impunity. There are too many crimes for which there are impunity.

And she has brought federal, state, and local partners together, along with Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who is sitting here, and others who have worked their hearts out on this endeavor to shine a light on forced child labor. And it’s incumbent on all of us, as she reminds us, to share our voices in the effort to strengthen the protections in our federal contracting process. So, Tina, we’re grateful for your commitment to this. I’m obviously particularly grateful to President Obama for charging all us with the responsibility and having set the goal to all of us to try to achieve here.

I’m very grateful to my good friend, Ben Cardin, for being here. Ben is – served so many years with him on the Foreign Relations Committee, and he’s the conscience, really, of the Senate when it comes to the Helsinki Forum and other efforts. Ben, thanks being here and thanks for your leadership.

And I’m grateful to every single one of you for taking the time to be here and being part of this effort. This is one of those things that kind of exists – people know it exists. They know it’s wrong. And yet it continues, sort of a subculture, if you will, underneath the radar in too many cases, above the radar in some. And we need to put it all of it above the radar and hold all of it accountable.

For that, it will take all of the business leaders who are here, the federal contractors, the anti-trafficking NGOs, and folks who just happen to come equipped with a conscience, and that is important. President Obama summed up this mission: “Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time,” he said. And the United States will continue to lead it in partnership with you.

I particularly also want to thank Senator Corker. He isn’t here at this moment, I think, but he has agreed to take this issue up as one of the top priorities of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in his role as the new chairman. We look forward to working with him in that endeavor.

I just shared with all of you that this issue is somewhat personal to me, going back to my time as a young prosecutor in Boston in the 1970s – hate to give a date, but – (laughter) – a lot of people did not consider violence against women to be a crime back then, believe it or not. They saw it as cultural, not criminal. So we had to do a lot educating and some prosecuting, needless to say. I am very proud that I launched one of the very first, in the country, violence against women divisions within the district attorney’s office. In addition, I hired a young woman who later became really nationally known, Amy Singer, for her advocacy. She became our victim witness assistance leader in the office, carved out a tremendous path for how we help people to avoid being twice victimized, once by the crime and then by the system, and that is not a small challenge to meet. In addition, we created a priority prosecution unit, where we took these cases and fast-tracked them as felonies and moved them through the system with prosecution from date of arrest to date of conviction in less than 90 days.

So if you focus on it, you can do things about it. I even tried a case that nobody in the office believed we could try and win, which charged a john with prosecution of rape of a prostitute. And people said, “How can you possibly have the rape of a prostitute?” Well, you can. Against will is against will, and violence is violence. So we were able to show that you can make a difference if leaders in government commit themselves to the effort, and that is what President Obama is working so hard to make certain we do.

And I’m privileged – I’m happy that as Secretary of State I get to dovetail into this. There are huge global implications, obviously, but there are also – it’s criminal justice, it’s got a lot of other hats that are worn here. But I’m delighted to be part of a team that makes it clear that we’re going to challenge this notion that money can buy anything. Money may be able to buy a lot of things, but it should never, ever be able to buy another human being. (Applause.)

So notwithstanding that clear proclamation from the Secretary of State of the United States, the fact is that trafficking in adults and children is literally one of the largest criminal enterprises on earth today. More than 20 million people are victims globally, and profits for this crime exceed $150 billion a year. The United States is the first to acknowledge that no government anywhere is doing enough. We include ourselves. We can do more, and that’s why we have a whole-of-government initiative to pull everybody together and try to create accountability in our own system.

Whether it comes in the form of a young child – and there are unbelievable numbers of children abused by this – who are compelled to work in a brothel – yes, lot of people relate quickly and automatically to the sexual component of this. But it’s much more than that. There are women and children enslaved as domestic workers, or working for companies at sub-wages and subpar benefits and no benefits and unbelievably abusive conditions and hours. There are fishermen on the sea today who are pressed into labor and who aren’t paid, or mere subsistence. And the victims of this crime are robbed across the board of their right to be able to live lives as they choose for themselves.

So if you dig deeper, you begin to see that modern slavery does not exist in a vacuum. It’s connected to many of our other foreign policy concerns, from environmental sustainability, to advancing the lives of women and girls, to combatting transnational organized crime. Wherever we find poverty and lack of opportunity, wherever rule of law is weak, wherever corruption is most ingrained, and where minorities are abused, where populations cannot count on the protections of government or rule of law, we find not just vulnerability to trafficking but zones of impunity where traffickers can prey on their victims.

One of the greatest zones of impunity is in the supply chains. The sources of the problem include individuals desperate for work; unscrupulous labor brokers who lie to recruit those workers; companies greedy for profits, who turn a blind eye to abuses; and customers looking to just save that extra dollar or two without regard to what the implications of those savings may be. If governments want responsible businesses to compete on a level playing field, then we need to address this problem head on.

Now some of the worst abuses happen in places that we rarely think about within the supply chains of electronic companies; logging and mining industries; onboard fishing vessels, as I mentioned; in processing plants. And when you eat your dinner, you rarely call to mind the abuses that may be happening in an illegal fishing sector, where workers are especially vulnerable to labor trafficking and other forms of exploitation. When you use your phone, when you go buy jewelry, you rarely think about the mining sector where miners are often isolated in very remote areas and physically unable to escape the abusive situations that they find themselves in – life-threatening almost always.

And when we purchase produce at a grocery store, you rarely think about the farmworkers right here in the United States, who in some cases are paid substandard wages and live in horrific conditions, with physical and verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination. The magnitude and the enormity of this challenge cannot be overstated. But so are the opportunities for change. So are the opportunities for us to be able to have an impact, and that’s what makes this forum today so important.

Governments can lead the way in ensuring that suppliers and contractors are held to the highest standards and adopt the highest standards. Companies can enforce regulations against human trafficking throughout their supply chains, and that includes the production of raw materials, labor brokers, contractors, and subcontractors throughout the final product.

Companies must also expand their knowledge and understanding of how their workers are recruited and they cannot just turn a blind eye to it. They can’t – “Oh, I didn’t know.” It’s really easy to find out. They have to provide contracts to each of their employees – legal contracts that comply with U.S. and local laws and international norms, and we have to make that the norm for companies all across the world, and they must comply with their obligations and make available safe grievance mechanisms so that employees can report abuses in the workplace without fear of retribution.

So let me be clear: Governments have responsibilities too. The Obama Administration has self-imposed on itself, because of the President’s leadership, the willingness to assume those responsibilities by ourselves. And we are taking steps to root out human trafficking in the federal supply chains, including through an executive order. The President’s directive prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from deceiving employees about key terms and conditions of employment, and it prohibits federal contracts from charging employees recruitment fees and denying them access to identity documents.

You’ve all heard the stories of wealthy people in one city or another who get illegal folks working for them, and they take their passports. They don’t give them identity papers. They don’t pay them money. They keep them enough so they’re literally frozen and can’t go anywhere. That actually happens, and it happens in some places that would make you sick when you think of the nature of the folks who are engaged in that and the opportunities they have versus those they exploit.

So we are making progress, but I want to emphasize: Laws, regulations, and executive orders are necessary, but they are not sufficient. They will not do it alone. Everybody has a responsibility here. That’s why I am especially proud to work with the State Department and the work that it has done in undertaking with civil society to prevent corporate and federal dollars from aiding and abetting this crime. We’ve teamed up with the NGO Verite in order to develop a range of tools and resources for all businesses, not just federal contractors. And our Trafficking in Persons office has asked Verite and its partners to investigate and map out the risk of trafficking in global and federal supply chains.

As part of that effort, Verite has just published a report that zeroes in on the warning signs for human trafficking in 11 key sectors. And the report is a resource not only for federal contractors, but also for any corporation that wants to be part of the solution, and that is how, in the end, we’re going to stop this crime, and that is the way we are going to change things for the better, which is our obligation.

I have faith that we can win this fight. I really do. And when we do, let me tell you, it’s not going to be the first time that we have come together to right a wrong in this world. We’ll be marching in the footsteps of men like William Wilberforce, who for more than 30 years fought for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. That was a tough task then, and we know from our own experience – I know from own experiences as a student in the 1960s how that fight had to carry on for a long time, and it is not yet even finished, but we have made extraordinary progress.

Wilberforce knew that it means something to be on a moral mission, and his words ought to continue to inspire us today. He said, having heard of all of this, much of what I’ve just said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.” Human trafficking often happens in places which we rarely think to look in. But today we’re just not looking the other way. We all know about the ravages of modern slavery and we’re determined to live up to our responsibilities to say no more, never again, and to realize the vision of a world that is more caring, more accountable, and more just – a world, ultimately, that will be free from this kind of slavery.

So for these reasons and many more, I am especially pleased to present this year’s Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. And I would ask if they would come up here, and we’ll read the citation and present them with the award. (Applause.) Come on up here. Right here; right there.

If you’d all – you can remain standing or sit, but let me just read to you quickly: Those of you know Florida’s tomato sector already know about the risks of forced labor, and some farm workers in Florida are in the fields for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. They live in deplorable conditions. They suffer beatings and sexual harassment, and many are paid hardly anything for the tomatoes that they pick.

But thanks to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Program, the tomato workers in the fields do not have to face these abuses. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers have organized communities, stood by tomato workers for more than 20 years, and changed the face of this industry. They’ve pioneered a zero tolerance policy that puts workers and social responsibility at the absolute center. Their program ensures a price premium which buyers agree to pay directly to the farm worker, and the coalition provides worker-to-worker training sessions on site around the clock. They make certain that there are health and safety committees for – on every farm. And they’ve already enlisted the major support of buyers from McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Compass Group, and Fresh Market.

And we also recognize the coalition for partnering with law enforcement to combat human trafficking. They’ve helped uncover and investigate several farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States. I hope everybody hears that: farm slavery operations across the southeastern United States. Over the past 15 years, 9 major investigations and federal prosecutions have freed more than 1,200 Florida farmworkers from captivity and forced labor, with the coalition playing a key part in the 7 of those operations. And the coalition has effectively eradicated human trafficking in the farms that participate in their Fair Food Program.

That is an extraordinary accomplishment, and reminds all of us not just of the work that we have to do, but that dedicated individuals, like those here with us today from the coalition, can strike out against injustice, break down barriers, and make the world of difference.

So it’s my honor to present the Coalition of Immokalee Workers with this award which reads: “For its extraordinary efforts to combat human trafficking by pioneering the Fair Food Program, empowering agricultural workers, and leveraging market forces and consumer awareness to promote supply chain transparency and eradicate modern slavery on participating farms, we award this Presidential Award.” Thank you. (Applause.)