The leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are pushing for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to rally behind an international effort to raise $1.5 billion to end slavery around the globe.
On Monday, Chairman Bob Corker posted a photo of himself alongside National Football League star Peyton Manning and Todd Helton, another former University of Tennessee signal-caller, each of the three men proudly sporting on the back of their hands the symbol of the anti-slavery END IT movement: a large red X. Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have already scheduled a Thursday markup of their bill, The End Modern Slavery Initiative Act of 2015.
The legislation, introduced Tuesday, seeks to leverage $251 million in U.S. federal funds to secure private funding and money from other countries as part of a massive foreign aid initiative against a variety of forms of modern-day slavery.
When groups sought support from the Foreign Relations Committee to fight practices such as forced labor, Corker said they were asked to develop a larger vision, rather than the sort of incremental steps initially proposed.
"Whether in the form of forced labor and sexual exploitation, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, the sale and exploitation of children — it's one of the great moral challenges of our time. We must end it," Menendez said Tuesday. "I think Democrats and Republicans will speak with one voice on this vital issue."
"I can't imagine what it is, for example, like the women of Bangladesh who work incredible hours under horrible conditions for much less than even what my mother used to get. This legislation is crucial to helping them. It's crucial to helping enslaved Bangladeshi women working as domestic servants in the Middle East, construction works from Nepal building World Cup soccer stadiums in Qatar," and people enslaved as part of the Thai shrimp industry, Menendez said.
The bill's unveiling came just as the emir of Qatar was meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama. Corker signaled that meeting raises concerns about the labor force being used to construct the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
"I assure you, if you could have been with us to see the 20 or so young ladies ... hoping to go to Manila, for instance, just to see what city life was about and being trapped, transported to Malaysia, being subjected to the kinds of things that they were subjected to," Corker said. "It challenges every moral fiber in one's being."
Corker said he hoped the bill could form a model for structuring the funding of other aid efforts and said he and Menendez had drawn on previous big U.S.-led efforts, such as President George W. Bush's aggressive move to combat AIDS in Africa, which was perhaps the single biggest bipartisan success of his presidency.
"If you think about what we've been able to do together, and people before us on something like [President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief], where again, metrics were put in place. There was this issue where we addressed it globally. You were able to see results," Corker said. "This in many ways builds on that type of thinking."
There's no shortage of outside stakeholders already involved. The United Way is just one of the major charitable and advocacy organizations that's already jumped on board.
"With more than 21 million victims around the world, human trafficking is one of the greatest human rights atrocities of our time," United Way Worldwide President and CEO Brian A. Gallagher said in a statement. “With forced labor, domestic servitude and commercial sexual exploitation around the world, this is an issue that requires a local, national and global response, and that is why United Way is working with Sen. Corker and Menendez on this legislation to scale sustainable solutions to tackle this problem.”
Corker said anecdotally that a Monday conference call to brief supporters was overwhelmed by the number of groups expressing interest, and some of them actually had to be dropped off.
Both senators dismissed the idea that some business interests could object to the plan behind the scenes, particularly given the significant media campaign that's going along with the bill's introduction.
"I just can't imagine a responsible corporation lobbying against a bill that's — its goal is to end modern-day slavery," Corker said. "I know some strange things happen around here, and there's certainly a great deal of lobbying that takes place, and that's some lobbying that I don't expect will occur."
"I think that this legislation creates a focus in such a way, and in the magnitude that the chairman has expressed that will get people not to lobby against it, but to find 'How do I clean up my act?'" Menendez said.
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