National Human Trafficking Awareness Day brings into focus the labor conditions of our extended supply chain — at least for one day.
Far too often, customers outsource their moral outrage, as well as their manufacturing, to their top tier suppliers. Turning a blind eye to these tragedies may be the easy choice, especially when the upstream supply chain is halfway around the world. But human trafficking and exploitation are not reserved to low cost countries.
We need to acknowledge there are labor exploitations within our domestic supply chain. Knowingly or not, we use suppliers who take advantage of employees, provide poor working conditions and low wages, and purposefully violate laws and regulations. Where is the moral outrage of labor exploitation in the United States?
As a supply chain professional, I spent a large portion of my time on the road, visiting suppliers for quality audits, sourcing assessments and contract reviews. My eyes and ears are my most powerful supplier evaluation tools. I found there are plenty of companies that exploit their employees, and I didn’t have to go very far to find them.
Some of these exploited workers are undocumented immigrants performing a range of jobs critical to our economy. Unscrupulous business owners, ignoring the voluntary E-Verify process, find it easy to "employ" these workers and exploit their immigration status with threats of turning them over to the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) for deportation. Nothing like threatening to destroy families by calling the feds if employees feel they deserve to be paid fair wages and work in safe conditions.
My eyes and ears are my most powerful supplier evaluation tools.
Supply Chain Dive
When visiting suppliers, my first task was to take the symbolic temperature of the employees, easy to do when looking in their eyes and at their surroundings.
I had a simple evaluation tool that seldom failed me. I said hello to employees on the manufacturing floor or at their workstations. A smile, a nod, an invitation to come see what they were working on was indicative of a generally happy employee and typically a well-run organization. Happy, safe and well compensated employees make better products. And I’m willing to pay for that.
But they were not always happy. A worker who did not make eye contact or who worked in substandard conditions with a supervisor imitating a prison guard’s demeanor told me very quickly all that I needed to know.
I remember the employees at a printed circuit board facility with holes in their clothes and burns on their skin due to the acids they worked with. Employees in a small and crowded break room that was crawling with roaches eating their lunch. Workers jammed shoulder to shoulder on assembly benches without enough room to properly do their work. Machinists lacking eye and hearing protection. Barbed wire surrounding an outside break area. Exposed electrical wires and leaking pipes, and clean rooms that were far from clean.
The responsibility lies with management. Perhaps like the manager who posted a sign on the one tiny coed bathroom used for 60 employees with a sign that said, "If this bathroom is occupied go back to work." Or company owners calling their employees idiots and morons in front of other employees, and the customer. Supervisors yelling at and making fun of employees who did not speak English. Managers who would not let employees leave work to care for a sick child, or parent, threatening to fire them if they did. Laughing at the handicapped and infirm. Degrading women and minorities and mocking LGBTQ employees.
Happy, safe and well compensated employees make better products. And I'm willing to pay for that.
Supply Chain Dive
If I saw these workplace issues at an existing supplier, I put the company on notice and followed up in short order. If I did not see the issue corrected, I found a new supplier. If I witnessed these behaviors during a sourcing visit, I ended the visit immediately.
At times when I noted my observations, I was even asked to leave. One owner told me I was not tough enough and had too high of a moral standard to be in business, ending his comments with a slur.
The good news is, our social consciousness seems to be catching on. Changes in the workplace, such as the #MeToo movement and living wage campaigns, are changing the global workplace in a positive way. And a move toward the green supply chain and ethical sourcing is forcing positive change as well.
We will know we have successfully solved the global human trafficking and employee exploitation problem when we don’t need a day to acknowledge it. Until then, supply chain managers need to pay close attention to human rights issues in their supply chain. You have the responsibility to hold your suppliers to a higher standard, no matter where they are located.