Working with thought leaders on shaping their speaking platform is an incredible privilege. And one of my speakers, Ameena Majid is having an impact on modern slavery beyond advocacy. She is using all the skills of a business lawyer to help clients become aware and educated about how developing a human rights strategy can not only address one of the greatest humanitarian crises, human trafficking, but how this can also influence a massive culture change. As Executive Producer of Speakers Who Dare and Curator of the Speaker Salon, I sit down with Ameena to hear how she uses her voice to have impact.
Tricia: Ameena, I’d like to start by simply defining modern slavery.
Ameena: First, I want to mention that in the US, most people are more familiar with the term human trafficking. And, people tend to associate human trafficking with sex trafficking or prostitution rings. But, it’s so much more. The global community uses the term modern slavery because it encompasses the vast forms and conditions where humans are treated as slaves and their dignity is stolen. Slavery today comes in many forms, including forced labor, child labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude. What many don’t realize is that, according to the International Labor Organization, those who are in forced labor is estimated to be about 81% of the roughly 40.3 million people subjected to some form of modern slavery. At the root of modern slavery is coercion and deception of the vulnerable. Humans are treated as commodities and their dignity is stolen because they are vulnerable in some way and I would say, mostly economically vulnerable.
There are also a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about modern slavery. For example, a person doesn’t have to be transported across state or country borders to be trafficked and it’s not a third world issue. It happens in the US.
Tricia: It’s clear that modern slavery is a humanitarian issue, and what makes this also a business issue?
Ameena: Not only is it a humanitarian issue, but it’s a crime. Government agencies, law enforcement, international governing bodies and NGOs are addressing the crises from their perspectives. But, businesses could connect with this issue through their supply chains, primarily, and not even know about it. And, those supply chains can be very opaque.
It’s a good bet that the teas we drink, clothes we wear, food we eat and a host of other things we consume or use has forced labor connected with it at some point. In fact, according to the Global Slavery Index by Gallup and the Walk Free Foundation, the US imports $144 billion in products at risk of being produced with forced labor. That’s out of an estimated $345 billion of at risk products that the G20 countries import. The US products most at risk are our laptops/mobile phones, clothes, fish, cocoa and timber.
Of course, how modern slavery – specifically, labor trafficking – touches a company will vary in significance and a company’s connection to it will differ. But, it’s a very prevalent issue for businesses and if they are complacent, they could be contributing to the conditions that become ripe for forced labor.
With the investor community focusing on a company’s environmental, social and governance factors; consumers becoming savvier, purpose-driven and demanding elevated standards of transparency by their brands; and an active NGO community, the discovery of labor trafficking by these communities can create a big reputational risk for companies.
Tricia: You’ve been working for your firm for two decades, why is this work important to you now?
Ameena: My firm is a big advocate for pro bono and philanthropic work. A few years ago, one of my partners asked me to become involved with this work. This manifested in my position as a director of Stop the Traffik USA. I began to learn about modern slavery from a global and activist perspective.
Because of the different communities I have connected with (non-profit, impact investors, purpose-driven companies), I see a shift at both the individual and corporate levels where there is a desire to align values and profit. I have been observing a shifting business environment that includes an evolving legal landscape bringing business into the conversation of modern slavery, the purpose of a business being challenged, identifying and measuring environmental, social and governance factors, adapting to generational shifts in the workforce and responding to changing consumer expectations of brands.
At the crux of all of these forces are the human rights and cultural elements of an organization being more integrated with operations and profit. I became interested in how I can help companies navigate this changing landscape with a focus on modern slavery and human rights. It makes perfect sense for me as I always wanted to use my legal counseling and compliance skill set for good. It aligned with my values and the way I flow through life. I like being a lawyer and guiding companies to make decisions that are best for the long-term health of their organization. I also serve as an advisor to a B corp fashion company, Able Made, where we focus on creating an ethical supply chain.
As I continue to learn about modern slavery, it is unimaginable to me and changing business practices can positively contribute to addressing the crises. At the heart of it all, every human being should be able to walk through this short life with dignity and respect. I live a privileged life and believe that those who do, have an obligation to acknowledge and protect other people’s dignity.
Tricia: How are people addressing human rights in their companies?
Many multinational companies are addressing it because they are subject to international laws requiring disclosure of forced labor in their operations and supply chains as well as steps being taken to remediate and prevent forced labor. The UK and Australia both have these disclosure laws. I have found other companies wanting human rights policies because sustainability is important and third party rating agencies are including human rights as part of their sustainability ratings.
I frame modern slavery or forced labor as one component of a human rights strategy. Companies already address a number of human rights issues like worker safety, gender equality and discrimination free workplaces. A human rights strategy is a more holistic approach and extends the human rights focus to its supply chains and communities a company can impact. Companies will conduct human rights impact assessments to identify the impacts of their business on human rights, including forced labor. Mapping the supply chain is a fundamental and key starting point. There are a multitude of actions that can flow from these impact assessments and supply chain mapping efforts. Companies can assess whether they are sourcing high risk goods from high risk countries, for example. This allows companies to begin addressing how to remediate any found instances of forced labor and/or other human rights violations as well as to prevent them. Actions could include evaluating supplier contractual provisions, reshaping the supplier relationships, industry efforts, audits and training of employees and suppliers.
While the dialogue around forced labor is growing, resources are being developed and company and industry efforts are increasing, there is a general lack of awareness and education on the topic and how businesses can effectively address forced labor in their operations and supply chains.
Business moves the world. No legitimate business wants to be connected to modern slavery. Having a window into the workings of companies, I appreciate and, through my clients, live the day to day pressures that people are under. There’s the pull of resources, time and if a company is public, the quarterly earnings race. At the same time, companies are being faced with what it means to be a responsible company. The days of social issues being left to governments and the nonprofit world are slowly coming to a close.
There are companies that understand this shifting paradigm. Just look at the B corp community and the number of companies becoming certified B corps. There’s a willingness to look and develop ethical supply chains because it’s the right thing to do, can make for a healthier business in the long run, and allows them to connect with the community, their employees, and consumers better. It can also mitigate the high reputational risk associated with labor trafficking.
When a company re-examines its culture to create alignment between its purpose and values to create profit and impact, human rights – and specifically modern slavery – is tackled because of business practice and not simply because of humanitarian efforts.
Being passionate about something is not enough, it’s also your responsibility for thought-leaders to speak out. Ameena is blazing the trail of merging profit and purpose while helping to develop modern slavery strategy in business.
Putting speakers who are having big impact is why I get up in the morning. And Ameena is one of these speakers. Over her last 20 plus years of practicing law at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, Ameena has helped numerous companies with compensation and benefits programs that are compliant, competitive, and communicated in ways that protect the company, and make employees feel invested in the company’s success. Ameena also serves as a director of Stop the Traffik USA, a non-profit affiliate of Stop the Traffik, an international NGO dedicated to using and scaling technology to disrupt human trafficking. Through her role on STT USA and as an impact investor, she has gained exposure to the business of human trafficking. Connect with Ameena on LinkedIn.