Human Trafficking Bridges Pro Bono, Billable Divide at Law Firm

  • July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons; more than 40 million people are victims of modern slavery
  • Having ethical supply chain is important issue for companies, who can bring about change, attorneys say

Having an ethical supply chain is becoming “more of a hot-button issue” for companies and it’s a growing practice area for law firms, attorneys who work in this field told Bloomberg Law.

July 30 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. There were more than 40 million victims of forced labor worldwide in 2016 and 152 million children were subject to child labor.

Companies could be facing a greater risk of being held accountable for human trafficking and forced labor in their supply chains as more countries are passing legislation to combat modern slavery and awareness of the issue is increasing, John F. Sullivan III, an attorney with K&L Gates in Houston, told Bloomberg Law. Sullivan heads the firm’s Global Ethical Supply Chain Task Force and helped launch its global pro bono anti-human trafficking initiative.

That’s where we step in, Amy L. Groff told Bloomberg Law. Groff is pro bono coordinator for the Harrisburg office of K&L Gates and is a member of the task force.

The supply chain task force helps clients mitigate risk, comply with the law, and enhance their reputations through corporate social responsibility, she said.

By taking these steps, the companies become the ones that can most effectively end the practice of modern-day slavery, the attorneys said.

Other major law firms are also providing supply chain services with a corporate responsibility focus including Squire Patton Boggs, Ropes & Gray, and Perkins Coie.

Global Hot Spots

The one-year old task force is an outgrowth of the firm’s anti-human trafficking pro bono work, which involved claims of child victims of sex trafficking, he said. It combats the same problems as the pro bono program but helps clients at the other end of the spectrum, Groff said.

Seafood from Southeast Asia, cotton from Turkmenistan, and Cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo are some products known to be associated with forced labor and child labor, Groff said.

Cobalt is used in batteries for electric vehicles and the D.R.C. is the top cobalt-producing country in the world.

As the demand for these cars increases, companies such as Tesla will have to face the issue of how to get an ethical supply of the element, Sullivan said.

To that end, the task force writes corporate social responsibility statements for its clients.

These companies will also need to know what countries in which they conduct business have anti-human trafficking laws.

The task force helps clients comply with transparency laws that impose obligations to report what steps they take to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains, Groff said.

Push for Change

Legislation in foreign countries to combat trafficking is on the rise, but Sullivan and Groff say companies can most effectively address the problem.

Australia is on the verge of passing an anti-modern slavery law; Hong Kong has proposed one; and the United Kingdom and France have already enacted such legislation.

Generally, these laws require corporations to disclose steps they’re taking to combat modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. A problem, however, is that many don’t have enforcement mechanisms or penalty provisions, the attorneys said.

Companies face legal issues in the U.S. too.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation imposes obligations on government contractors in certain situations to implement a plan to prevent trafficking under their watch, Groff said.

California has a law calling for transparency in supply chains, and consumers have filed class-action suits against companies under various fraud and consumer protection statutes for failing to disclose using forced labor, she said.

Consumer awareness of the issue will also cause companies to pay more attention to their supply chains, Sullivan said. If their reputations suffer and sales drop, they will become motivated to change, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Melissa Heelan Stanzione in Washington at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at [email protected]