We have just made an impact even before our supporters had a chance to get involved!
More often than not, campaigning is the only way to effect behavioral change. Ultimately, however, we hope to also change values so that the need for campaigns disappears altogether.
And we’re seeing it in action! Our movement fighting modern slavery is growing and conveys so much power that sometimes just the thought of a campaign is enough to make change happen. Here’s a peek at an example of a campaign we were ready to launch but didn’t have to, thanks to the strength of our community.
The Wayfair case: successful advocacy through consultation
Last month, we discovered that popular American online furniture and household goods store, Wayfair, was selling hundreds of items, mostly towels, advertised as made with Turkmenistan cotton in their online stores. Those of us in the Freedom United community who campaigned to free Gaspar Matalaev, who was imprisoned by the government of Turkmenistan on spurious charges, are all too familiar with the extent state-sponsored forced labor in the country’s cotton industry.
Turkmenistan is the ninth largest producer and seventh largest exporter of cotton in the world but every harvest the Turkmen government forcibly mobilizes its citizens to work in the cotton fields in conditions akin to modern slavery. The state owns most of the land, leases it to the farmers who are then given government-imposed quotas to meet during the harvest. Public sector workers, including teachers, doctors, nurses, and government staff, and students are then forced to pick cotton for little to no pay to meet quotas.
Failure to meet targets results in risk of termination of employment, loss of land, expulsion from school and harassment from employers or the government. Despite the existence of national legislation prohibiting child labour and a 2008 ban of child labour in the cotton sector, children still work on the fields to help parents meet their quotas.
For years, we’ve sat on the steering committee of a coalition of organizations from around the world, mobilizing against child and forced labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Called the Cotton Campaign, members hail from diverse sectors ranging from human rights to responsible business to law. To date, the coalition’s Turkmen Cotton Pledge has been signed by over 100 companies promising not to source their cotton from Turkmenistan until the state-run system of forced labor has ended.
Like Amazon, eBay and Walmart before them, Wayfair wasn’t just likely selling forced labor goods; they were also acting in violation of U.S. law. Following the Cotton Campaigns’ petition, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has imposed a country-wide ban of importation on all cotton and cotton goods produced in whole or in part with Turkmenistan cotton since 2018.
We wrote to Wayfair as a member of the Cotton Campaign raising these concerns and asking Wayfair to remove these products from its sites as well as to conduct rigorous due diligence monitoring of its supply chain. We were already preparing relevant documents to launch a campaign when we were stunned by the almost immediate removal of all items made with Turkmen cotton from Wayfair’s stores!
Does this mean success and that Wayfair’s supply chain is in the clear? No. We invited Wayfair to engage with us and we are still waiting for their response. We want an answer to our call that Wayfair is undertaking its responsibilities to ensure that it is not selling goods that are tainted with forced labor or human rights violations. For now, we are glad that they have made it more difficult for many forced labor cotton goods to reach the market, but it is an easy move that doesn’t answer all our concerns.
We’d like to be put out of work!
Some may ask why we don’t try to work with companies instead of targeting them publicly. The truth is we do. When this fails, we turn matters over to our amazing and enormous community making our call harder to ignore. Sometimes, it just takes a briefing note to company shareholders to get Proctor & Gamble to commit to reporting on its palm oil supply chains. Other times, it takes the voices of over 120,000 people and the work of three organizations to get US Customs to block imports of tainted palm oil.
We are an independent organization motivated by the desire to end the severe exploitation and forced labor of persons around the world. We want to demystify complex realities that result in unacceptable suffering. We want to change the systems that perpetuate that suffering and exploitation. Sometimes, this involves upsetting powerful corporations or governments by pointing out the errors of their ways. We don’t relish this task but all too often it is the only way available to us.
But we believe that our work is crucial to ensuring sustainable change towards a world in which exploitation is the exception not the norm. So, we run numerous campaigns, host webinars, and organize protests. We create petitions. We write letters. We speak to the media.
We collaborate formally and informally on numerous other campaigns with hundreds of organizations. And we also preface most of this action by quietly reaching out to companies and government agencies, giving them the benefit of the doubt as to their awareness of the appalling situations their actions perpetuate, and ask that they do better.
Why do we do this?
Because the scale of forced labor in the world today is appallingly high. On any given day, an estimated 40.3 million people around the world are exploited for commercial gain – forced by coercion or intimidation to work against their will, putting their lives, well-being, and dignity at risk.
Many are involved in the production of goods that reach into global supply chains, like the cotton in plush towels, that then flood the marketplace at temptingly low prices. The modern slavery industry is highly lucrative, generating a likely grossly under-estimated $150 billion in illegal profits every year, making forced labor the second largest international crime in the world. Until all efforts and avenues have been exhausted, we cannot and will not stop.
That said, it is just as rewarding when change happens when we don’t resort to agitation – that’s because it tells us that we are moving in the right direction – perpetrators and their facilitators know that what they’re doing is wrong and don’t need much persuading to do the right thing.
This is what progress looks like – and that’s a win for us all.