Brian Iselin’s fight against modern slavery

Ethical Leadership in Business 2019

Brian Iselin


Brian Iselin

The sun is slowly setting but the air is still warm as ten people form a circle to listen to Brian Iselin’s captivating story told during the human library as part of the Ethical Leadership in Business conference. He tells us how he discovered the extent of modern slavery and how he decided to fight it.

He first came into contact with human trafficking during his time as a federal agent combatting narco-trafficking. While searching for narcotics, he found two baby girls in a sports bag who were meant to be sold for adoption in Vietnam. Profoundly appalled by this discovery he shifted his priority to modern slavery and decided to take action.

But what is modern slavery? Slavery is not a new problem, the main difference today being that trafficked and abused people are not part of our society as they are not seen. Scandals such as child labour are common amongst big fashion brands but most people distance themselves and continue to buy the clothes. As Iselin says, ‘80% of what we all buy is slave tainted (…) we are talking about hundreds of millions of people’.

Two years ago, Iselin created the NGO Slavefreetrade based on his belief about customers that ‘nobody would willingly do something wrong if [they] knew that it was not right’. The aim is to show the customer what they should do instead of blaming them for doing what they should not and therefore relies on a positive message and incentive.

In practice this means that on a regular basis Slavefreetrade asks workers at every stage in a brand’s supply chain if their human rights are being resepcted. The questions include rights such as dignity, equality and child-free labour. Slavefreetrade then provides the company with access to the results so that they can address any issues. Iselin told us about one case in which the head of human resources for a big label discovered that sexual harassment was happening in a factory that he did not even know existed. With the help of this detailed information, he could do something about it.

The platform brings transparency in a sector where it formerly did not exist. The challenge is now to convince big brands to join the movement and face what is really happening in their supply chains. This will only happen by ‘bringing good actors together’.


Text: Nicole Walther

Photo: Paula Mariane

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