27/10/2014 09:33 GMT | Updated 27/12/2014 05:59 GMT

Fighting Human Trafficking in Supply Chains: What You Can Do

As more and more stories of human trafficking appear in newspapers and on television, consumers are increasingly asking what they can do to fight this problem. Many are frustrated, and feel disconnected from the people who make the clothes they wear or pick the fruit they eat, toiling in foreign countries and even on distant continents thousands of kilometres from the stores and markets where the products are sold. Yet, despite cultural and geographic obstacles, an ordinary consumer can fight modern day slavery by asking questions about the origin of products sold and by supporting movements that pressure multinational corporations and governments to eliminate products made by trafficked workers and other forms of forced labour.

It is important to remember that as a consumer, you are a client of the corporations, and that your views and purchasing habits are of critical importance to major retailers, who understand very well that you can take your business elsewhere, often simply by clicking your mouse and opening a new webpage. This is one important reason why they respond to public pressure, and the growing movement to remove forced labour from corporate supply chains.

One example of a successful movement is the Campaign for Fair Food, described in our recent paper Ending Exploitation. Ensuring that Businesses do not Contribute to Trafficking in Human Beings: Duties of States and the Private Sector. It shows how a coalition of activists, with workers at the helm, mobilized consumers to support their demands. The movement was initiated by a community-based human rights organization of farm workers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which became aware in the early 1990s that some agricultural workers were trafficked for labour exploitation in Florida and other states in the region.

The Campaign aimed to stop trafficking and the use of forced labour on Florida farms while also eliminating the poverty and lack of rights which helped cases of modern slavery to flourish by demanding that corporations buying tomatoes use their market power to improve wages and conditions. It called for the boycott of a major US fast food corporation that purchased tomatoes from Florida farms, while pursuing the wider objective of persuading retailers to work with the Coalition to pay an increase in wages to farmworkers and to establish a code of conduct with a zero-tolerance policy for forced labour.

More than nine years ago the fast food corporation agreed to the demands, and by 2010 nine other corporations signed similar agreements with the Coalition. That year, the Coalition and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a co-operative representing more than 90 per cent of the state's tomato industry, launched the Fair Food Program to extend fair food principles across the industry. As of January, 2014, 12 corporations have joined the Program. Former US President Bill Clinton recently called it "the most astonishing thing politically happening in the world we're living in today" when he honoured the coalition for "defending the human rights of farmworkers across the United States."

Globally, other workers' movements are also emerging to protect their interests. Thai berry pickers created the Network against Exploitation and Trafficking of Migrant Workers to oppose the enormous debt burdens they accumulated while working in Scandinavia during the harvest season. In the US, Filipino domestic workers formed Damayan to support colleagues who had become victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Governments are also responding to pressure. In 2012, US President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order "Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking in Persons in Federal Contracts"

forbidding federal contractors and subcontractors from engaging in certain trafficking-related practices, such as charging employees for recruitment fees and destroying or confiscating employee identity documents. US regulations also require that all government contracts contain a clause prohibiting trafficking in persons. And on the state level, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires companies that do business worth more than $100 million per year to disclose information about efforts to ensure that their supply chains are free from slavery and human trafficking.

As the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), I support these efforts, and hope to see them enacted across our region, which includes 57 states on a territory that stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok. It is an important step towards ending human trafficking and forced labour, a massive phenomenon that has ensnared 20.9 million people across the globe, according to 2012 International Labour Organization data.

On November 4-5, my office will host a conference in Vienna on Ethical Issues in Preventing and Combating Human Trafficking, bringing together experts from government, international organizations and NGOs to discuss ethical sourcing to prevent human trafficking in the private sector. The conference will also include a range of other issues such as measures that businesses, civil society and governments can take to prevent trafficking in human beings for labour exploitation. I want to encourage you to join me at the conference, or follow it online in order to find out more about new developments in human trafficking and the tools to fight this crime.

Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova is the Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the former Permanent Representative of Kazakhstan to the United Nations.