Hollywood star wants US law against labor trafficking

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Hollywood actress Julia Ormond pleaded with US lawmakers Monday to pass a law halting the sale of men, women and children into forced labor.

Ormond told a panel of lawmakers how children are "chained, whipped and scarred for life while working on our carpets" and "Mayan agricultural slaves in Florida pick my tomatoes" just to keep prices down and profit margins high.

"Just as those forced into sex slavery, they deserve our compassion" and a federal law to protect them, said Ormond, who in 2007 founded the Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficking (ASSET).

The British actress was testifying at a hearing of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a US government agency that helps fight human trafficking. US lawmakers serve as commissioners.

Ormond played a key role in getting a law passed in California last year that requires retailers and manufacturers earning more than $100 million a year worldwide to disclose their supply chain sources, in particular the labor that produces the goods they sell.

The California law will allow consumers to decide whether to buy a product from a manufacturer whose supply chain includes forced labor, said the actress who won an Emmy for her role in "Temple Grandin" and played alongside Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

"It will also educate companies... of the devastating impact of using company influence to drive profit up by forcing the prices of down to a level where labor violations and criminal activity and suicide are the outcome for the raw material workforce -- for today's enslaved," said Ormond.

"It's not a perfect silver bullet but it does kick the ball forward," she said, noting that a similar law at the federal level would give more clout to the fight to wipe out this modern-day form of slavery.

Ormond's activism puts her in the same league as the likes of Oscar-winning actor and director Ben Affleck, who last year founded the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) to help bring stability to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and George Clooney, who backed South Sudan's quest for independence.

Ormond began advocating for the rights of exploited workers after becoming aware of the plight of women sold into the sex trade in eastern Europe.

Only 11 percent of the 12.3 million people who are in forced labor work in the sex industry, said Nancy Donaldson, director of the International Labor Organization (ILO)'s Washington office.

The majority work for "economic exploitation" -- in sweat shops, on farms or as domestic servants.

Women and girls make up 56 percent of forced laborers, and up to half of today's slave stock is made up of children, according to Donaldson.

Most forced laborers are "poverty-stricken people in Asia and Latin America whose vulnerability is exploited by others for a profit," she told lawmakers.

In some countries, forced labor is "sometimes still imposed as a punishment for expressing one's political views," Donaldson said without naming names.

But Luis de Baca, director of the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said forced labor was "not isolated in far away places or limited to countries stricken by poverty or lack of opportunity.

"It's happening right here in the United States," with workers who come to work on US farms -- like the Latinos picking Ormond's tomatoes in Florida -- "particularly at risk for trafficking," he said.

According to the ILO, three percent of trafficked laborers -- more than 360,000 -- work in industrialized countries.

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