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Disrupting the labor supply chain: Q & A with Ben Skinner

Modern-day slavery expert E. Benjamin Skinner with Apparel, Merchandising and Design faculty Anupama Pasricha and Kelly Gage
Modern-day slavery expert E. Benjamin Skinner with Apparel, Merchandising and Design faculty Anupama Pasricha and Kelly Gage
Photo by Sharon Rolenc
There are more slaves today than at any point in human history. This startling fact was revealed by E. Benjamin Skinner in his groundbreaking investigative book A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery.

Skinner visited St. Catherine University last fall, met with students in the Apparel, Merchandising and Design program, and delivered the talk “An Investigative Journalist’s Journey into Modern-Day Slavery: A Look at Supply Chain Management in the Garment Industry.”

He sat down for a more a more in-depth Q & A to offer insight and resources on combatting labor trafficking in the garment industry, reprinted here in conjunction with January's National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

How big is the scope of human slavery today?

Many of my colleagues say there are between 21 and 30 million slaves in the world today, possibly north of that. The real response is we don’t know. I am comfortable saying there are more slaves today in the aggregate, than at any point in human history. As a percentage of humanity, it is at the lowest point. We should take some comfort in the latter, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels.

These are not people who raise their hand waiting for the census to be taken. Generally speaking, these are the most marginalized, who are least aware of their rights. These are folks born generation after generation believing slavery is who they are. Nations within nations like the Roma in Romania. Victims of war like the Dinka during the genocide in Sudan. In the country with more slaves than any other, India, it is the oppressed caste. 

India is an example of a country with an enormously enlightened national government that has passed wonderful federal laws, but at the local and district level they do not translate.

You’ve quoted Stalin, “the death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of a million men is a statistic” and that the goal of your book was to tell the story of slavery from the perspective of one man, one woman, one child. What does this teach us?

Hopefully it teaches us the power of storytelling. The idea that bearing witness and critically allowing others to bear witness, who have had their voice suppressed can be one of the most powerful agents of change in the world. But it also engenders a responsibility to act decisively, to respond to injustice when it’s voiced that way, otherwise we’re merely engaging in voyeurism of tragedy. 

The challenge for journalists is to follow the mandate to observe and not engage, but at the same time push for justice and for that concerted action.

After you experienced that, you went from being a journalist to co-founding Tau Investment. Tell me about that journey. How and why did that happen?

I wanted to become a journalist to continue my education on my interests and have someone else pay for that. I wanted to travel the world and pick my topics. For me, journalism was not the end — it was the means. 

The educational process hit an acceleration point when I started writing for Bloomberg Business Week. At Bloomberg, I saw that businesses can make changes in 48 hours that take governments 10 years to think about doing — and then perhaps pass a law, and perhaps consider the best way to enforce it.

When a large corporation, with an attenuated supply chain, is alerted to problems up stream in supply chains — particularly when it faces the imminent reality that those problems will be exposed over Bloomberg channels and hit investors all over world — they tend to act with a degree of resolve and urgency that you don’t often see in the public sector. 

So while I worked for great public servants like Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and General Stan McChrystal, I realized that the private sector really presented an opportunity to move the discussion from observation to impact.

At Tau, we seek to invest in companies that we think will be dignified work places upstream in supply chains — to grow them, to plug them into existing supply networks for the world’s largest brands and retailors in the apparel industry. Ultimately, we want to create profitable business that actually improves lives, at first for tens of thousands in these initial investments, and then through catalytic effect, millions in the developing world. 

What can our Apparel, Merchandising and Design students do to create change as future workers and leaders in garment industry?

It’s important to understand that when you are working in an industry with attenuated supply chains, that involves some of the poorest and most vulnerable workers in the world — and particularly women — who are taking their first step on the ladder out of absolute poverty by seeking jobs at a cotton plantation, textile mill, or garment factory.

You have impact, regardless of whether you seek to have impact, simply by virtue of how you source your product. That can be positive impact or it can be negative.

The proliferation of mobile technology also has impact. Within two to three years, there will be 7 billion mobile subscriptions in the world. That creates the largest potential crowd source pool of labor information on earth at any one time, so the conditions of those workers upstream in your supply chain will be increasingly, publicly visible.

To sum up the second point, you may not be interested in transparency but transparency is interested in you. That’s something to own, to evaluate, to get ahead of, and to embrace.

This is only the beginning. I think we will see more platforms broadcasting what is going on in real time up stream in supply chains. One of the dreams we have at Tau, and one we are working to bring to reality, is real time transparency so that at some point you scan a label with your smart phone and see what conditions the workers are facing, whether in the factory sewing, or in the field picking cotton.

As consumers, what can we do to force change? Do you have tips to become more informed buyers?

true costWe are in kind of a brave new world, in terms of regulations, in terms of the consciousness of the many inputs of the clothes we wear. There is a film called The True Cost, a feature documentary that does a good job of highlighting the fact that its not just the brands or the retailers that have the impact, but also how consumers purchase their clothes.

How we engage with companies on how we get our stuff and where we get our stuff has impact. For example, Patagonia actually encourages its buyers to buy less and hold on to it longer. It’s a very interesting mindset, and one that has bred an almost fanatical consumer base for that company. Patagonia went a step further, with an article in the Atlantic monthly, “All Your Clothes Are Made With Exploited Labor.” The article highlighted how 75 percent of Patagonia’s Taiwanese textile manufacturers were using slave labor. The reason Patagonia disclosed this is because they are interested in transparency and they think their consumers will stay by them as they hit bumps in the road in figuring out how to fix the problem. The company’s CEO believes  they create a more trusting relationship with consumers by engaging in that openness. It’s a risk.

Under the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, every company that makes over $100 million and does business in California is required to disclose what they are doing to monitor and combat slavery in their supply chains. Humanity United’s Know the Chain initiative has a great resource for consumers. You can go to their website, plug in the company’s name and figure out whether they are doing anything to combat slavery in our supply chains – it saves you from searching through individual corporate websites.

Even more basic, go to Slavery Footprint, answer a series of questions and it gives a rough estimate of how many slaves have enabled your lifestyle. Now these are indicators but there is a decent methodology to it.

These are a few exercises that should empower any consumer to think more consciously, to understand more thoroughly what they are buying.

More about E. Benjamin Skinner

Skinner is an award-winning author and journalist who studies U.S. and global political economies, specializing in modern-day slavery. His articles and investigations have appeared numerous outlets, including Time, Newsweek International, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and on ABC's Nightline, where one of his book's chapters was adapted into an Emmy-award-winning episode, "How to Buy a Child in Ten Hours." Currently, he is co-founder and Operating Partner of TAU Investment. He is also founder of Transparentem, a non-profit intelligence unit that adopts frontline investigative ethics and forensic methods to illuminate supply chains and spur eradication of human and environmental abuses. 

A film screening of The True Cost is hosted by St. Kate’s Fashion Association, Thursday, February 18, at 7 p.m. in The O’Shaughnessy.

Skinner's Resource List

"All Your Clothes Are Made With Exploited Labor," The Atlantic

California Transparency in Supply Chains Act

Humanity United

Know the Chain, Disclosure Search

Slavery Footprint

Tau Investment

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Jan. 29, 2016 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Business, Social Justice, Students