California Anti-Trafficking Legislation
Sets Precedent

By Alison Kiehl Friedman

The concept of a label was exciting: consumers would know whether a product they pulled off a shelf was tainted by slavery. It was my first month on the job as executive director of the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking (ASSET). Both ASSET’s president Julia Ormond and board member Al Meyerhoff were keen to meet with California Senate president pro tem Daryl Steinberg and Teamsters lobbyist Barry Broad. They all wanted legislation to turn the idea of that label into a law.

We sat across the table and discussed our options, our challenges, and—pregnant with the feeling that we could all be a part of something that changed the world for the better—we reveled in the possibility of it all.

There were firm boundaries driven by the politics of the day. We knew the bill had to be fiscally neutral, economically palatable, and ultimately workable. Anything with a “private right of action,” that is, something that would enable private persons to sue, was a non-starter.

There were firm boundaries driven by the character of the room: we would not restrict the bill to industries that used forced labor the most or those sections of the supply chain that were easiest to monitor; whatever we wrote had to apply to everybody. After all, we’ve told slaves to wait their turn for freedom for hundreds of years. Our effort was not going to rewrite those sad chapters.

That meant that labels, a commission, some posting requirements and ultimately all but one compulsory action was removed from what became the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act. What remained has been called both elegant and diabolically clever—both characterizations from which I derive a bit of pride. In four little legislative pages the law establishes that slavery exists everywhere and it is in the interest of the State to combat it. The act also requires companies disclose what, if anything, they are doing to eradicate it throughout their supply chain, and how they monitor compliance of their own policies.

Companies can do nothing and publicly disclose that they do nothing and be in compliance with this bill, but as one representative railed, without irony, while opposing the bill, “that might expose us for breaking other laws related to slavery and working conditions.”

Well shucks.

This law set a platform for the good companies that had previously, and understandably, avoided publicly discussing their best practices, fearful that a lack of public awareness would leave them branded as the slavers, rather than the responsible actors they were. It required transparency by which each industry actor could be held accountable to best practices within their sphere rather than enabled by the silence that had shielded them. Most importantly, every affected company was now forced to have a conversation about this issue.

All of a sudden, supply chain managers had to be conversant enough in the issue of trafficking in persons to help explain (or, often, create) and report on their policies to their supervisors and the public at large. Companies posted their response earlier than mandated to give NGOs time for consultation. Federal lawmakers, senior administration officials, and even parliamentarians in the United Kingdom took notice, reaching out to multinational enterprises to make them aware of the requirements and introducing companion legislation.


Quick Facts on the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act

What is the law? The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 is designed to spotlight issues of human trafficking and forced labor. The act specifically aims to help buyers of products and services make purchasing decisions with greater knowledge of which companies are actively working to eliminate trafficking from their supply chains.

Who is covered? Any manufacturer or retailer doing business in California (including companies based in the state as well as those with sales there) having annual worldwide gross receipts greater than $100 million is directly affected.

What is required? Each covered company must place on its home page a "conspicuous and easily understood link" taking the user to a statement disclosing "to what extent, if any" the retail seller or manufacturer:

  • Engages in third-party verification of product supply chains to evaluate and address risks of human trafficking and slavery,
  • Conducts independent, unannounced audits of suppliers to evaluate supplier compliance with company standards for trafficking and slavery in supply chains,
  • Requires suppliers to certify that product materials comply with the laws regarding slavery and human trafficking of the countries where they do business,
  • Maintains internal accountability standards and procedures for employees or contractors failing to meet company standards regarding slavery and trafficking, and
  • Provides training on human trafficking and slavery, particularly with respect to mitigating risks within the product supply chains, to company employees and management who are directly responsible for supply chain management

—Adapted from Lindquist & Vennum web alert, December 2011.


I wasn’t working at ASSET when the bill passed. The credit for getting it over the finish line goes to Julia Ormond, senator Daryl Steinberg and Barry Broad, who served as both substantive leads and champions of the bill, with the courage to sit in offices until the meeting they needed happened, and stand up when suggested amendments would threaten the message and meat of the bill. And of course, to Muffadal Ezzy and Chris Miller, who echoed and strengthened their bosses' wisdom and creativity, conviction and effectiveness.

While we don’t yet know what will emerge from the information the law and resulting public awareness generates, the California bill was never envisioned to be the final frontier in the fight against modern slavery. It was instead the practical manifestation of a simple concept: empowered and informed people will build better communities through their choices.

—Alison Kiehl Friedman is Deputy Director of the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The views expressed are the writer’s own views and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

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