What It Takes for Real and Lasting Progress in Eradicating Contemporary Slavery

August 20, 2014 John Pepper Opinion 
Forced Labor, Sex Trafficking

Earlier this year I developed a paper upon which this article is drawn. My purpose in developing that paper was to gather learnings from the history of reform movements which could inform how we tackle the challenge of eradicating contemporary slavery and human trafficking today. My examination here began with the observation we often mount campaigns for a good cause but face opposing forces and/or are not serious enough about the follow-through to achieve significant, sustained reform. The issue of gun control in this country, it seems to me, is a recent example of the latter, at least through this point in time.

I have come to differentiate between sustained commitment based on strong, deeply rooted strategic “interests” which lead to almost certain irreversible change and reform and sporadic expressions of sentiment which, while noble and sincere, lack that no-holds-barred commitment to results that are necessary for lasting change in the face of significant challenge.The Civil Rights movement was a sustained commitment. The marches kept happening. There was vivid portrayal in media of violent injustice. We heard the voices of victims and survivors. There was courageous, committed, focused leadership. There was a growing portion of the electorate in supporting the Civil Rights movement.

©End Slavery Now

Major Reform Movements

I believe we have reached a tipping point on gay rights though, to be clear, for decades those who marched in support of gay rights could not be sure that their effort would yield results. But, like the Civil Rights marchers, the gay rights activists had deeply felt personal interest. Once they “came out” (this made all the difference!), they had “voice.” They voted. And they became “visible” members of the workforce and formed affinity groups. And as they did, companies like Procter & Gamble came to see that their interests were of significant importance to their companies. Beyond just being the right thing to do in the minds of an increasing number of people, they became critical to recruit and retain top caliber young employees.

These are two of the major reform movements that have occurred in my lifetime.

I begin with the conviction that major reform movements such as the abolishment of slavery, women’s right to vote, diversity and inclusion in the work force, gay rights, the environment, gun control, immigration and AIDS have both been thwarted or enabled by the impact and influence of the following factors:

  • Economic power
  • Political power
  • “Voice”
  • Laws and law enforcement
  • Public awareness and depth of public caring
  • Strength of leadership: individual and organizational
  • Ability of individuals to make a personal difference, including in small steps
  • Seeing the benefits of making progress
  • The impact of religious beliefs
  • Involvement of youth

Expanding on these slightly:

  1. Economic power (how entrenched is economic power that would challenge the reform; how to draw economic power to support the reform) – With chattel slavery, the economic power supported slavery. Same with bonded labor today in India. Economic power will support human trafficking unless/until penalties get huge and demand goes down.
  2. Political power (how entrenched to resist reform; how to turn it to support the reform) – Where politicians see the voters and the moneyed interests who support their campaigns will be key here. Most politicians’ #1 goal is to stay in office. It is no wonder that Southern politicians supported segregation for so long. Today, presumably, no political entity would explicitly support contemporary slavery or human trafficking. The question is, do they care enough about it among the hundreds of issues on the table to take firm action?
  3. “Voice” – Its strength, breadth, emotional engagingness and credibility.
    1. “Voice” of the “victim/afflicted” themselves (e.g., AIDS patient or disrespected gay employee). Years ago, for example, African-American men at P&G explained to me that they consumed too much energy feeling the need to “fit in;” women came to me to speak out for their rights.
    2. “Voice” of the survivor (e.g., AIDS survivor, Frederick Douglass)
    3. “Voice” of a credible spokesperson/celebrity. Important on AIDS and genocide (e.g., George Clooney).
  4. Laws and law enforcement – A predicate, I believe, to achieve lasting reform. Usually grows from above elements. Very vital on Civil Rights. Fortunately, we are seeing progress on laws to outlaw human trafficking improving. Enforcement still has a long way to go.
  5. Leadership both individually and organizationally – Civil Rights, the environment, vote for women all benefited from strong, focused organizations, even if fragmented. Leadership to combat contemporary slavery is still fragmented. Humanity United is playing a unifying role, and the Freedom Fund promises to. The Freedom Center’s “End Slavery Now” web site promises to provide a unified base for building awareness, advocacy and action.
  6. Public awareness and depth of caring – How aware are people of the issue on a personal level, and do they care? Depth and breadth and continuing forceful presentation of the “issue” to the general public. Does it become personal? Film of police with dogs beating protestors in Alabama had a dramatic effect on mobilizing public opinion and legislation on behalf of Civil Rights. The effort of the members of “Historians Against Slavery” to establish chapters on college campuses across the nation will help build awareness among young adults. This carries great promise.
  7. The ability of individuals to make a difference (as they see it) on the “issue,” even if small steps – On the environment, recycle and buy light-weight packaging and biodegradable products. On diversity and inclusion, make a hiring decision which addresses a diversity gap and support an affinity group. On gay rights, show respect for a gay colleague and change your workplace policy. On AIDS, give money to a reputable NGO. Again, the establishment of chapters on college campuses is a step in the right direction as college students learn about actions they can take.
  8. Seeing the possibility and benefits of making progress on the issue – People seeing progress and benefits accruing from it builds momentum. For example, as women and men in organizations saw increasing diversity and benefits from it in the workplace, that sparked further action. Visible progress in reducing landfill encourages efforts to do more. Reduction in incidences of AIDS encourages more activity. On the other hand, if people do not see progress on the issue, no matter how important, most will drop away. I believe this happens on the gun issue. I believe it happened during the first half of the 1800s with regard to the institution of slavery.
  9. The impact of religious beliefs (sometime mixed, positive, challenging, varying by person, faith and geography on some issues) – For example, on the issue of gay rights, differing religious views on the institution of marriage continue to slow movement to full equal rights everywhere. But it is happening.I believe the reading of religious texts made by many in the South in support of chattel slavery was a factor in its acceptance on a moral basis. When it comes to human trafficking and contemporary slavery, religions appear unified in condemning it, a very positive factor in enlisting the support of the religious community.
  10. Broad and growing involvement of youth, supported by a select group of mature leaders, seems to me to characterize most successful modern reform movements – The enthusiastic commitment of the young fired commitment to the gay rights, environment, diversity and inclusion and Civil Rights movements. In contrast, as I see it, it has not been an active force on the issue of gun control. It has not yet become a driving force on human trafficking and contemporary slavery. However, the creation of college-based chapters by “Historians Against Slavery offers promise for the future.

I am sure I have oversimplified some of the causes and effects. But these factors strike me as of overwhelming, if varying, importance depending on the issue.

An Example

To illustrate further, on slavery, the deck could not have been much more stacked against the enslaved men and women. They had little “voice” of their own though the voices of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and a few others like them and the reality expressed in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” did play some role. Slaves had no vote. The economic interests embedded in slavery pushed to maintain the institution not only in the South but also the North, except for those who saw it as a threat to free labor. Our Constitution allowed slavery, and petitions against it were limited in Congress. With regard to religion, some people perversely interpreted the Bible in a way that they argued slavery was countenanced by God.

Contrast this to the issue of gay rights. This issue gained a “voice” (and an acutely personal one) when gay men and women “came out” and often went beyond that to celebrate the meaning of their partnership. The “injustice” of withholding equal rights was dramatized vividly by lack of medical support or insurance coverage for gay couples or something as basic (as reported in a recent story) of being able to be buried together. They gained political power as they voted and formed affinity and lobbying groups. An increasing number of powerful and influential people added their names to support gay rights: actors and actresses, sports figures and political leaders. Young people overwhelmingly supported the issue. Here was a combination that does appear to be on the way to an “irreversible change.”

Allow me to illustrate with one other issue: the environment. The concern about preserving the environment has grown dramatically over the last 25 years despite the fact that the environment itself is obviously not a “person,” does not vote nor have political power in its own right. What has accounted for the dramatic – even if slow to birth – increase in concern and action, including by corporations? Again, at the risk of oversimplifying, I would cite these factors:

  • Increasing data-based awareness of the damage being done to the environment which leads to the ability to VISUALIZE the damage (e.g., disappearing ice floes)
  • Corporations’ reputations becoming increasingly judged by their impact on the environment, particularly important among employees and prospective employees
  • The involvement of the young in knowing the risks to the environment and the possibility of taking remedial action
  • The availability of easily executed and consumer-discernible actions to combat the challenge: recycling, light-weight bottles, biodegradable materials, etc.
  • Sustaining coordinated leadership from various organizations

So, let me come back to why I have undertaken this analysis of previous reform movements, as incomplete as I am sure it is.

It is to raise these questions:

  1. Today, would we classify the commitment to eliminating contemporary slavery as a “sentiment” or “interest?” Is it on the path to becoming a significant, irreversible change, or is it still too diffuse in its strategic intent and organizational strength to make that a likely outcome?
  2. What can we learn from the history of other “successful” reform movements that can offer direction on what we should do in combating contemporary slavery and human trafficking.
  3. Very importantly, what are the unique roles which each organization can play in doing this? And how concretely do we carry out that role?
  4. It is beyond this paper to try to answer these questions in a comprehensive way.

Topics: Forced Labor, Sex Trafficking

About the Author



John Pepper

John E. Pepper, Jr. is the retired Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board of Procter and Gamble. He currently serves as Honorary Co-Chairman of the Board of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Mr. Pepper also served as Chairman of the Board of the Walt Disney Company from 2007 to 2012 and served as Vice President of Finance and Administration at Yale University from 2004 to 2005. Mr. Pepper has devoted important effort over the past 25 years to Early Childhood and Youth Development. Pepper graduated from Yale in 1960, where he served on the Board of the Yale Daily News.

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