Friday, April 29, 2016

Child Labor, Forced Labor and Chocolate

As the Promoter of Justice for the Dominican Sisters ~ Grand Rapids, I am charged with organizing my efforts and those of our Sisters, Associates, and friends around several justice issues including immigration, care of earth, human trafficking and others, while keeping in mind the root causes of racism, poverty, and violence.  As I write this, Earth Day and the Annual Forum of People for a Racism Free Community are the “anchors” of thought and action while other issues float in and out of my consciousness.  As a block of time frees up today, the “floater” is “I promised a blog.  Start writing." But the question is, “On what?”   So in reading recent blogs, I found the item “Closing the Loophole” – discussing a New York Times article that reports new U.S. legislation forbidding imports produced by forced labor has been signed, sealed, and delivered.

My immediate reaction was “Yes – signed and sealed.  But will it be delivered?”

Last January during Trafficking Awareness Month, the Dominican Sisters did displays, workshops, and prayer services around the problem of labor trafficking.  One project was tracing the use of forced and child labor in the chocolate industry with a particular interest in Hershey, Mars, M&M, and Nestlé.  These and other companies have signed pledges and made promises to stop labor trafficking for decades, like the Harkin-Engel Protocol, with little effect.  Of these companies, only Nestlé is bound by a legally binding treaty that prohibits the economic exploitation of children through forced or unsafe labor because Switzerland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the ChildThe U.S. has not ratified the treaty.  Switzerland, however, has chosen NOT to control and regulate the activities of its transnational corporations because the children involved are no Swiss citizens.

Nonetheless, this January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Nestlé with other companies can be held legally accountable for aiding and abetting human rights violations by purchasing cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire in full knowledge of that country's child slavery problem. The companies are being sued for using unpaid children to harvest cocoa. This case probably will return to its original court for trial.  We can only hope the rule of law will protect the children of the cocoa farms.

TAKE ACTION:  While there does not appear to be any current/active boycotts to join, there is no reason why we cannot individually and organizationally refrain from buying chocolates from the most egregious chocolate companies.
  • Check out Green America's Chocolate Scorecard to find the best and worst companies and boycott those that exploit children.
  •  Download the food empowerment project “Chocolate List” mobile app so you can check which chocolates are safe to purchase while grocery shopping.
  • Gather concerned people for a screening of "The Darker Side of Chocolate"
  •  Join us in sending Godiva – who earned the grade of “F” on Green America's Chocolate Scorecard – a message to show support for the workers in its supply chain. Godiva needs to trace its supply chain to prevent child labor and ensure cocoa farmers earn their fair share. 

 Sister Mary Brigid Clingman OP, MSW is a promoter of justice for the Dominican Sisters ~ Grand Rapids.  The Sisters and Associates have justice committees on Human Trafficking, Immigration, Peace and Security, Economic Justice and Care of Earth.  They also work on issues of racism and homelessness.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What is $1.25 Worth? Women Prisoners in the Fight against Trafficking

We all know that awareness of human trafficking is increasing. It’s about time. Let’s talk about a population that has long known what Human Trafficking is all about:  inmates at a women’s prison.

I began my career as a corrections officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections in 1989. I worked at Huron Valley Men’s Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Right next door was Huron Valley Women’s facility. I heard all kinds of stories about the women in that prison. When I worked the gun tower and overlooked the yard of Women’s Facility I thought to myself “ There are a lot of mothers and daughters in there- how sad that families are without them. “  I could only imagine what kind of life they had lived that led to imprisonment.

Fast forward to 2016 and I am a field agent for the Department Of Corrections. I serve on a local Human Trafficking Task Force as well as the State Human Trafficking Task Force.  At the State meeting in March 2016 Director Jane White asked me to look at a check from the Department of Treasury and attached to the donation were stacks of donation slips. I quickly realized the slips, called Disbursement Authorization Forms, were from prisoners housed at Huron Valley Women’s facility. Prisoners!   Donating their money to our Human Trafficking Task Force.  

I learned that inmates walked to donate the money.  Much like any other 5K walk to raise money, prisoners are allowed to participate in fundraisers as well; only instead of walking on a rail trail or river walk like you and I would, the women walk on a track surrounded by fence and razor wire.  I also learned that many others prisoners walked in solidarity but did not have the means to donate.

Think about this:  prisoners do have jobs in the prison. They work in the laundry, kitchen, yard detail, as cleaning porters, and so on. The top pay scale per day is less than $1.25.  So, when reviewing the donation amounts, it is possible that a woman prisoner worked for four or five months to make a $ 5.00 donation.  Instead of spending the money on candy, snacks or other items, these women chose to give a donation to us. Think about it - over 50 prisoners donating $ 635.00!  Amazing !

The donation seems like a million dollars to me.  It’s not just the money.  It’s the thought and the time. I am moved by the idea of women walking around and around the track, each lap working toward a goal of raising money, to donate toward a cause that is probably so very personal to them.  Probably some of these women have been trafficked, or know someone who has, or was involved in trafficking somehow.  They include women who were abused, mistreated, drug addicted, did heinous things to pay for their addictions, and who were taken advantage of in every conceivable way. It is these very women who thought of human trafficking as they took each step, trying in their own way to make a difference.   I am beyond touched by the donation and can’t stop thinking about it.

Take Action:  The next time you pay $ 1.25 for something, think about the prisoner, who worked all day to earn that wage. Think about making a donation to the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force or your regional human trafficking task force in the amount of your own day’s wages. Then, think about how your donation and your work on the Task Force may help one victim not end up at Huron Valley Women’s Facility. Donations to support the fight against human trafficking in Michigan, can be mailed to Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, 717 US 27 North, Marshall, MI 49068.

Kimberly Ade has been employed for 27 years with the Michigan Department of Corrections, currently working as a field agent. Ade began her career as a corrections officer at Huron Valley Men’s facility working exclusively in the Self- Mutilation Prevention Unit, then moved to field work where she has supervised adult felons including sex offenders and those on probation, parole, tether, and  alcohol monitoring. In addition to supervision, Ade completes investigative reports for the Circuit Court.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Learning to Follow rather than Lead: What happens when we let youth take charge?

I’m a professor.  I’m used to standing at the front of a classroom full of students and guiding them through the material that I want them to master.  I decide what is important for students to learn, what they will read and how to run the classroom – whether to lecture or have class discussion.  I assign and evaluate work.  Frankly, I’m used to being in charge.  So when my Human Rights students decided to organize an anti-trafficking event for a class advocacy project, I struggled with letting go.  Now don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled that they chose to confront human trafficking and I was excited about the prospect of expanding the circle of anti-trafficking advocates among our youth.  But the assignment required that the students take the lead – it was a real life test to see if they could translate what they have learned about human rights advocacy in the classroom into an effective event in real life.  My job was only to serve as a consultant.  My job is to follow wherever they led. 

So why did I have a knot growing in the pit of my stomach?  Advocates in the fight against human trafficking have been struggling against the problem of misinformation, and especially with the promotion of myths that have become conventional wisdoms – but are wrong.  These myths, when presented as truths, can actually hurt the anti-trafficking movement and human trafficking victims.  I am passionate about the fight against human trafficking in Michigan and so it was important to me for the students to “get it right.”  I couldn’t do the work for them, but left completely on their own they might actually perpetuate some of these myths?  What was a professor to do?

Over the course of several weeks, I fretted.  I watched students search for information online and integrate inaccurate or misleading information into their materials and presentations.  I asked probing questions and challenged source material.  I asked them to corroborate sources.  I gave them advice – they only sometimes followed it.  I offered list of experts – they did not reach out to experts. Honestly, there was a moment when I wondered whether or not I should let them proceed with the event.  After all, our task force is deeply committed to accuracy and we know bad information is counterproductive.  I kept asking hard questions.  It was a slow and sometimes painful process but in the end I followed and they led.  So what happened?

The event titled #NotinMIstate was an overwhelming success. A class of 18 students directly touched more than 100 people and mobilized them to take action.  They produced educational materials that drew attention to BOTH labor and sex trafficking in Michigan.  They personalized and humanized the crime of trafficking and showed participants that it happens everywhere – including in their own communities.  They got participants involved in actually doing something to respond.  They asked participants to dip their hand in red paint and stamp it on a giant map of Michigan to visually show where trafficking happens.  Students took photos of participants holding posters stating “I stand against human trafficking” and asked them to make it their social media profile – people did. They created hashtags -  #Ithappenshere and #NotinMIstate to educate their peers that while human trafficking happens in Michigan, it shouldn’t.  They collected nearly 200 letters addressed to Senator Peters and Senator Stabenow advocating for victim-centered legislation. The students’ efforts had a snowballing effect.  Those they reached spread the message through social media and word of mouth, maximizing the impact.  In short, students and I both learned that they could make an impact and that they didn’t need to wait until they became the experts to do something about human trafficking. 

In sum, students can contribute in creative ways to the anti-trafficking movement.  They bring originality, passion and creative potential to the table. They develop ideas we don’t think of and can reach audiences we can’t reach on our own.  Youth listen to the voices of other youth better than they listen to us and their voices bring a credibility and legitimacy that we won’t achieve with the same audience.  Youth don’t communicate and use media the same way we do.  They have technical skill sets and social media savvy that many of us in a different generation do not.  Finally, they are passionate, have a lot of energy and retain a fair amount of optimism about the world. 


If you are a practitioner in the anti-trafficking movement consider actively seeking students out to involve them in your work.  Hire them as employees and interns.  Brainstorm ways to make them a partner in the conversation about human trafficking and not simply just slot them into your existing work plan.  Consider the contribution students might make to your work if you added them to your Board of Directors or added a youth representative to your regional task force. These actions might mean taking a risk and investing in a student who may only be with you for a short while but I think it is worth it

Carrie Booth Walling is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Albion College and member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force

Friday, April 8, 2016

What I didn't know almost cost me my life

Although I grew up in a community where I was exposed to societal ills, I still had a sense of normalcy. Daily witnessing violence against women and violence against people of color, all while walking past people high and/or drunk on my way to school taught me a lesson that was difficult to unlearn.

The lesson that I had to unlearn was that women and girls are commodities
  • that they can be bought and sold and it's okay;
  • that resistance will only get you hurt; 
  • that the hurt you receive from resistance is deserved; you don't belong to you.

This lesson was taught to me through socialization. It was the water that I was swimming in. This lesson, this lie, almost cost me my life.

I was ten years old when I was first exposed to pornography. It would also be the 1st time that I saw up close and personal violence against women and girls. The world I knew was quickly transforming to a place that was unsafe for me in ways that were unimaginable to me before. Being a female, a girl of color, and impoverished were working against me.

At the age of fourteen, I was living with a man and three women. The women would go out nightly to the truck stops, and also be taken out of state to have sex with men. Two of the three women in my young mind, were addicts who were doing so willingly. The third woman had a baby. The man offered food, clothing, a place to live and protection.  I was taken to truck stops with them. I was bought short skirts and lingerie and told how pretty I was. I was exposed to pictures of his genitalia, pictures of explicit sexual activities, and shown off to his friends.

No one had ever told me that human trafficking was real. No one had ever told me that I was a walking statistic, a living embodiment of risk factors for victimization. No one told me that I had value outside of my body.

One night, the woman with the baby came to me. She said, “You don’t want this. I don’t want this.” She asked me for directions; she wasn’t from the state. I gave her directions. She said, “Take care of my baby. I don’t know when I will return.” Days went by, she never returned. CPS removed the baby.

Weeks later he was arrested for setting one of the women on fire. My ignorance to the danger, to trafficking was almost my undoing.

I still live with the wounds of that time in my life. It is imperative that we assure that all people who are at risk for victimization are given accurate information, early and often. This means everyone must receive accurate and timely information. Perpetrators of trafficking and violence against women and children are predators who are seeking individuals who are vulnerable, accessible and lacking in credibility.  We must create an environment where those who are most vulnerable are seen as valued members of society and not as complicit in their own victimization.

TAKE ACTION: Take 2 minutes to learn the risk factors and behavioral indicators of human trafficking. Armed with this knowledge, you might also save a life.

Chéree Thomas is a Program Manager with the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. She has almost 20 years of experience in service provision and is the author of See Me for WhoI am.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Staying Informed

We are bombarded by news 24/7.  In our fast-pace, sensationalized news environment, it is easy for important stories to become overshadowed by frivolous headlines. So here is some news/information you may have missed.

Closing the Loophole
For 86 years the U.S. has banned the import of goods that have been produced by forced labor.  Sounds good, but there is a loophole! The exception being if we really thought we needed the product we could still import it even if it had been produced by forced labor. The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 has done away with the loophole, which will help curb international forced labor. 

Is Your Hospital Checking for Signs of Human Trafficking?
Your local hospital can be on the frontline of stopping human trafficking.  Is it? One report found while being held 88% of sex trafficking victims enter clinics and ERs. Doctors and nurses need to be trained on how to spot and help a victim.  You can help by asking if your hospital is participating in this important training.

Project Your Children – Monitor Their Apps
Because of potential safety risks, it is important for parents and guardians to monitor the Apps children are using on their phones.  Jean Turner and Aaron Sheedy pose 5 questions you should be asking.
1.      What is the purpose of the App and why does your child want to use it?
·         Risk: Game friends on Apps are often total strangers. The content also can be mean-spirited or sexually explicit.
2.      Does the App take and share pictures, video or audio?
·         Children can be fooled into posting or being exposed to inappropriate pictures, video, or audio.  
3.      Is the App tracking location information? If yes, why?
·         Apps can broadcast where your children are, which makes it easier for anyone, including strangers, to follow them.
4.      Does the App attempt to be anonymous or secretive?
·         When an App is anonymous children are often more willing to take risk in what they post. They believe no one else will see, even though there is nothing online truly private.  Child offenders often stalk anonymous sites.
5.      Follow the money: Is the App free? Will the App require money or pay money to the user?
·         Risks: Free Apps may contain advertisement that you feel is inappropriate. If you think the App is okay you may want to purchase the App for a small fee (usually around $5) to turn off the advertisements.  Make sure the App doesn’t allow the child to run up a bill on your credit card in order to be able to play games.

You can find more information on what you can do as a parent or guardian by clicking on the link below.