Susan Coppedge

Susan Coppedge, Design for Freedom Working Group Member,
Senior Counsel with Krevolin & Horst in Atlanta, GA, and Former Ambassador-at- Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons

In recognition of National Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month, we spoke with Senior Counsel with Krevolin & Horst and Former U.S. Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Susan Coppedge as she makes connections between forced labor and human trafficking and how the Design for Freedom movement is working to end these humanitarian crimes.

Q: People and industry professionals are sometimes confused by the term forced labor in the built environment verses forced labor associated with construction sites. Can you define forced labor and distinguish between forced labor on job sites and the forced labor used to make our building materials, from bricks to steel? 

A: The International Labour Organization defines forced labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” Forced labor on job sites exists in many countries across the world, including in the U.S.  The media has reported on some of these cases, including covering migrant workers held in forced labor while building World Cup stadiums and sites in Qatar or Brazil. These workers are often lured to locations with the promise of good paying jobs but once they arrive are forced to work for little or no pay, in deplorable conditions. However, it is not only the construction sites themselves but also the materials that are used in these construction sites. The built environment is comprised of the harvesting and production of timber, glass, steel, rubber, and other ubiquitous materials that go into building our schools, office buildings, and homes.  The production of these building blocks can also be embedded with forced labor. Discerning forced labor along the supply chains of building materials may not be as readily evident as forced labor on a job site, but it can be there. Workers that make these materials are often held in conditions of labor trafficking around the globe. 

Q: How is human trafficking connected to Design for Freedom’s aim to eliminate forced labor in the built environment? 

A: Forced labor, debt bondage, and human trafficking, and sex trafficking are all different kinds of modern slavery. As the former Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, I worked with governments around the world to fight modern slavery. This work, which involved engaging not just government officials but also non-profit organizations, community-based groups, businesses, civil society and other key stakeholders, is very much aligned with Design for Freedom. Design for Freedom is seeking to create a radical paradigm shift to eliminate forced labor from the building materials supply chain by engaging with businesses and suppliers. This work is a critical piece to ending forced labor and debt bondage which are often a hidden component in our global economy. 

Q: Is there any new legislation that you think will have an impact on the prevalence of forced labor? Do you have any concerns about enforcement of federal legislation?

A: There is positive momentum on a federal level in the U.S., as well as efforts internationally, that officials and governments are recognizing forced labor and moving to end it. For example, the new Infrastructure Act contains a provision that no materials or products produced with forced labor be procured with government funds. The Uyghur Forced Labor bill, which was just signed into law last month, addresses forced labor in the Xinjiang region of China.  One final example occurred last summer, when the G 7 made a joint statement affirming that forced labor in supply chains must be acknowledged and eradicated while those who perpetrate forced labor must be held accountable. 

Q: You have remarked that “Only by insisting on transparency in building materials can a builder or architect know that they are not importing exploitation into a project.” What can the construction industry learn from other industries?

A: It is true that the construction industry lags behind some other sectors with regard to forced labor issues; however there is much to learn from other industries. The clothing industry, for example, has been working on eliminating forced labor in both fields and factories for many years to support ethically-sourced apparel.  More than 200 brands have signed a pledge not to source cotton from Uzbekistan while forced labor continues. These efforts allow reputable companies to showcase the steps they take to appeal to consumers who want clothes that are not made with slave labor.  Many companies in the food industry are taking similar approaches – looking at the ingredients that go into their products and working to ensure they are forced or child labor free.  Insisting on transparency in supply chains is the first step in removing human trafficking from our buildings.      

Q: Why have other industries been able to tackle these issues while we are still demanding material transparency in the built environment?

A: The construction industry is one of the least modernized and most disaggregated industrialized sectors in the world.  The construction industry accounts for approximately 18% of forced labor cases while manufacturing and agriculture sectors also contribute to the building material supply chain and have slightly lower percentages of forced labor cases.  When the three sectors are combined, they comprise approximately 45% of all forced labor cases – demonstrating the prevalence of forced labor in the built environment.  Materials that go into buildings – timber, steel, glass, and so many others, are often produced with forced labor in countries all over the world.  Like the apparel and food industries, diverse built environment companies need to come together, pledge to eliminate forced labor, and increase transparency in their supply chains.  Increasingly, governments are requiring such steps and consumers are demanding it.

Q: With the work of Design for Freedom and Grace Farms’ work to end human trafficking and forced labor, what makes you hopeful?

A: Grace Farms is leading the expansion of efforts to combat modern day slavery into a new and essential business supply chain.  Design for Freedom can be the catalyst and serve as a convener on this issue.  Partnering with companies in the built environment sector and university and survivor leaders, Design for Freedom can strive to create a minimum set of standards for transparency and compliance with efforts to eliminate modern slavery.  By highlighting best practices, the standards will also serve to distinguish those entities who are leaders in the fight for human rights while also revealing those not fully engaged in ending human trafficking.  I am hopeful that the built environment sector is the next industry to tackle the vital issue of eradicating forced labor and human trafficking.