Guest Blogger: Jessica Slattery Karich (’06)
Foreign Affairs Office, United States Department of State
Take a moment and close your eyes. Imagine you are a young woman living in South Asia. You come from poverty and have little access to education. You find work as a seamstress making sweaters and jackets in a large, overcrowded factory in the densely populated city center. You make roughly $30 a month, working 12-hour days, and most often you’re not given breaks or overtime pay. As you walk into work one morning, you take in your surroundings—the walls of the building are cracking and the ceiling above you is groaning beneath the many layers of ad hoc structures on the factory roof.
Suddenly, you hear screams and smoke begins to fill the room. You panic and join a stampede of women desperate to escape. The only emergency exit is blocked by a mound of highly flammable fabrics, which is rapidly engulfed in flames. There are no sprinkler systems, no extinguishers, no fire escapes, and the city’s emergency vehicles cannot reach the building because of poor roadway infrastructure. As the black smoke fills your lungs and your vision begins to blur you think you see people jumping from the windows in a dangerous attempt to save their own lives. You drop to your hands and knees, crawling with your shoulder brushing against the wall until you reach the unmistakable indentation of a door frame. You muster the strength to come to your feet and grip the scalding metal door handle . . .
Unfortunately, horrific working conditions can be all-too-common in some parts of the world. In fact, there are 215 million estimated child laborers, and about 115 million of them work in hazardous conditions. Today, 21 million people are victims of forced labor, 90 percent of whom are exploited by private enterprise and 10 percent by the state or rebel military groups. Further, 27 million men, women, and children are victims of “human trafficking,” including 6 million children forced into labor or sexual exploitation.
As a human rights officer in the U.S. Department of State I work to promote respect for human rights, embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including fundamental worker rights and labor standards. A central goal of U.S. foreign policy is to promote global human rights. When human rights are protected, it helps secure peace and security, promote the rule of law, strengthen democracies, combat crime and corruption, and prevent and alleviate humanitarian crises. In my work I engage governments to encourage accountability to universal human rights norms and international human rights instruments and work to incorporate the voices of civil society into candid conversations about worker rights. I also advocate ethical sourcing and work with companies to ensure visibility into their global supply chain.
So when you lay your head on your pillowcase tonight be mindful that young children may have picked the cotton from Central Asian fields, a South Asian woman toiling under dreadful working conditions may have sewn your nightgown, and the jewelry on your bedside table may contain gold mined by trafficked children in Africa. The State Department and our human rights officers actively implement a variety of strategies and tools to promote and protect human rights worldwide, including fundamental worker rights, and it is my honor to work among them. In this way, I am living the social justice mission of the University of St. Thomas, School of Law