May 28, 2012

OTTAWA - Consumers need to ensure the products they buy are not produced by modern day slaves, says the American ambassador-at-large who monitors and combats human trafficking.

"It takes a cultural shift," Ambassador Luis CdeBaca told a gathering of MPs, senators, diplomats and NGOs here May 17. "Not just a cultural shift to say I won't participate in paid sex."

CdeBaca, who works under American Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, said consumers must ask themselves: "Where did the shrimp come from that I'm eating? Where did the chocolate come from that I'm eating."

CdeBaca admitted he had "no idea where cotton on my shirt came from, but there's a good chance that I'm wearing a shirt with cotton picked by child slaves in central Asia."

"If I don't know, how are we to ask the consumers?" he asked, adding governments must insist on slavery-free contracting. If they don't, it is harder to expect businesses to insist on that as well.

"There is a need for a cultural shift that does not come from government," he said. The fight to end modern day slavery will begin "only if we put victims and their journey to recovery at the centre of what we do. You have to hear and you have to act."

"The term 'slavery' is an emotional one," he said. "Many want to look away."

They will be looking away from Canadian houses where domestic servants toil wondering if anyone knows they are there, away from Canadian and American brothels, truck stops, construction sites, he said.

They look away to "frame it as a development issue, by definition something that happens over there," when the person behind the counter with the accent may be in Canada doing coerced labour.


Though modern day slavery often affects vulnerable immigrants, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, the mentally ill, deaf and disabled people, LGBT communities and women are also vulnerable, he said. "When people are vulnerable there will always be cruel people who will enslave them."

CdeBaca praised Canada's efforts in fighting modern day slavery, especially the role Conservative MP Joy Smith has played in championing a national strategy to combat human trafficking.

Her second private member's bill is now before the Senate, shepherded now by Senator Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu. Bill C-310 would extend Canada's ability to prosecute human trafficking offences to include activities by Canadian citizens or residents on foreign soil.

A former prosecutor, CdeBaca was lead counsel in a slavery case involving 300 Vietnamese and Chinese garment workers in American Samoa. He congratulated the work legislators in Canada are doing to combat human trafficking.

The needed cultural shift must reject "the notion that boys will be boys" or that trafficking is a problem in the developing world and not here.

A Catholic, CdeBaca said the Gospels contradict the notion that a woman caught in prostitution is irredeemable.


"There is the notion in the Christian tradition that Jesus went out of his way not just to be seen with the woman in prostitution, but to honour her, to put in check those who would say she was not worthy of attention."

Even though he runs the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, CdeBaca insisted slavery is the more accurate word.

"We use a lot of euphemisms in diplomacy," he said. "When they give you your pinstriped suit and your diplomatic passport, they also give you a box of euphemisms."