Imagine an evil that is so widespread that it affects over 21 million people worldwide, but is hardly ever talked about. Imagine that same evil to be the third-most profitable form of organized crime, right after drugs and weapons trades, with close to $150 billion in illicit annual revenue - and yet it is almost never addressed as an issue.
We are talking about a wide range of activities that together are known as human trafficking. Pope Francis calls human trafficking a "crime against humanity" that must be stopped. "It is a disgrace," for people to be treated "as objects, deceived, raped, often sold many times for different purposes and, in the end, killed or, in any case, physically and mentally damaged, ending up thrown away and abandoned."
This includes prostitution and pornography, commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, or the use of children in armed conflict as child soldiers. Human traffickers prey on easy targets - women and children who have been stripped of rights and power, migrant workers, indigenous people, refugees and people in severe poverty. Fifty-five percent of forced laborers and 98 percent of sex trafficking survivors are female.
Human trafficking is the dark underbelly of globalization, and has increased rapidly because of economic, technological and social changes worldwide. Tens of millions of people have left their farms and rural jobs in developing countries, and moved to the cities trying to find better ways to provide for their families.
We might be tempted to think only of prostitution and pornography when we think of human trafficking, but there are also millions of people who are held against their will by unscrupulous employers in domestic work, agriculture, construction and manufacturing.
The problem is that the products we buy, for example, have many steps and parts and come from many places around the world (known as the "supply chain"). Human trafficking can take place along any link of this long chain - and it's not easy to discover it. In fact, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor identified 136 goods from 74 countries that were made by forced and child labor.
There is legislation before Congress to address this issue (called the "Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015"). This would require companies to report publicly on efforts to ensure their products are not the result of child or forced labor, slavery or human trafficking.
Too often, companies are simply unaware of the existence of modern-day slavery in their global operations and supply chains. However, the principles of justice and moral reasoning dictate that companies have a responsibility to respect human rights and address issues like exploitative supply chains.
We, too, have an obligation to address human trafficking, and we can do so by becoming more aware of where our products come from. Pope Francis' letter for the World Day of Peace in 2015 was entitled, "No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters." The pope asked us to consider this: "Let us ask ourselves, as individuals and as communities, whether we feel challenged when, in our daily lives, we meet or deal with persons who could be victims of human trafficking, or when we are tempted to select items which may well have been produced by exploiting others."
One good first step would be to urge our senators and members of Congress to pass the Business Supply Chain Transparency Act.