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Student contest spotlights human trafficking

Children working in cocoa production in Ivory Coast, 2007. Human trafficking, including child labour, generates $32 billion in profits AFP

A unique competition for Swiss university students highlights the threat posed by human trafficking to global businesses while seeking solutions to the problem.

This content was published on November 22, 2011 - 21:26
Malcolm Curtis in Geneva, swissinfo.ch

Launched on Monday night at Geneva University, the contest with cash prizes invites students to write papers on how companies can tackle what is now the third-largest criminal activity in the world after arms and drugs trading.

Often hidden, human trafficking includes child labour and the forced employment of men and women against their will. Such illicit practices enslave millions of people and generate around $32 billion (SFr29.28 billion) in profits annually, according to the United Nations.

 
The student competition, the first of its kind, was unveiled by End Human Trafficking Now (EHTN), a Geneva-based non-government organisation.

Founded in 2006, the group is working with businesses to conduct an awareness campaign about human trafficking, its victims and causes. The campaign also highlights the associated risks to reputation that loom for companies that outsource work without paying sufficient attention to labour conditions.

EHTN board member Charles Adams told a media conference to launch the competition that human trafficking affected all regions of the world. He said there are more slaves today than at any time in history.

“The corporate world has a responsibility to combat this curse,” he said.

For large companies that outsource goods and services, the danger of being linked - even indirectly - to such activity means that “due diligence must be applied up and down the supply chain,” Adams told swissinfo.ch.

Swiss problem

Child labour and sweatshop conditions persist in countries such as India and China, where western companies, including some from Switzerland, contract out production, EHTN spokeswoman Rasha Hammad added.

“It’s a big problem - people are starting to talk about it,” Hammad said.

Human trafficking in Switzerland has been commonly associated with the sex trade and concerns about foreign domestic workers being forced into servitude, particularly in the homes of diplomats.

A report released in June by the United States government criticised Switzerland for its failure to comply with minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.

The report took aim at the Swiss government for allowing the prostitution of children aged 16 and 17, although Bern has promised to pass a law against the practice.

  

The Swiss federal police in its report for 2010 estimated the number of human trafficking victims in Switzerland at between 1,500 to 3,000. These included female prostitutes from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Brazil, as well as Roma children from eastern Europe forced to beg and steal in Swiss cities.

Act now

But this number is just the “tip of the iceberg”, with many more victims outside Switzerland working for suppliers of Swiss-based companies, Hammad said.

The world’s largest food company, Vevey-based Nestlé, was forced to defend itself a few years ago when reports emerged about thousands of children in Ivory Coast working in the production of cocoa used for chocolate products. The multinational has since pledged to adopt “fair trade” policies for its cocoa supply.

But EHTN says it is more interested in highlighting companies that have acted progressively against human trafficking than in blaming firms that have done wrong in the past.

The organisation praises Swiss companies such as global travel group Kuoni which has adopted policies to ensure that hotel companies that it deals with have policies against exploitation of children, for example.

Businesses that fail to address human trafficking issues now may be forced to play catch-up if legislation pioneered in the US state of California spreads to other jurisdictions. Last year, the state passed a law requiring large retailers and manufacturers to disclose the measures they are taking to combat human trafficking.

Changing the future

The student competition is being organised with backing from Geneva University’s HEC business school, the Cercle HEC student association and the Manpower Group (see sidebar).

Stuart Marvin, a spokesman for Manpower, said the recruitment company decided to support the student competition because it has a vested interest.

“We deal with people who work and we want to make sure that people are put to work in  a proper manner,” Marvin said.

Professor Michel Léonard, head of the HEC business school at Geneva University, acknowledged that after past mistakes the teaching of business management is being “reinvented” with greater emphasis on ethical awareness and social concerns.

There is a need to change the way managers are trained, he said, pointing to the introduction at the Geneva HEC of a master’s degree in corporate responsibility as a sign of the changing times. 

“We messed up,” he told an audience largely made up of students at the press conference, alluding to past management theories. “Not you, I hope.”

Competition

The End Human Trafficking Now award is seeking student papers from 6,000 to 9,000 words in English or French on human trafficking and its implications for business.

The term “human trafficking” refers to activities that involve one person holding another in compelled service. Examples include forced labour, child labour, sex trafficking, debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude and child soldiers. 

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (known as the Palermo Protocol), has been ratified by 142 countries but its provisions are non-binding.

The competition is open to students enrolled in any Swiss university for the 2011-12 year. A paper can be written by one or more students.

According to organisers, papers should explore one or more aspects of human trafficking and its consequences for the private sector. Entrants should suggest measures on how to limit its impact on businesses and society and prescribe recommendations for companies and other organisations.

Awards include cash prizes of SFr 2,500, SFr1,500 and SFf1,000 for the best three papers.

The deadline for entries is June 30, 2012.

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