Design For Freedom Summit Shares Strategies For Removing Modern-Day Slavery From Building And Construction Supply Chain

Arts & Celebrities

Shackles. Cotton. The Big House.

Americans tend to think of slavery in terms of chattel slavery. Plantation Slavery. Slavery where human beings are bought, sold, and owned. The kind outlawed in the United States by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Slavery as a relic of the 19th Century.

“Six of us lived, worked, slept in a 10-by-10 (foot) room without a bed, bathroom, or clean water,” Nasreen Sheikh remembers.

Sheikh was born in a small village on the India-Nepal border. Unwanted as a girl, to avoid further physical and mental abuse and an arranged marriage, she left for Kathmandu at nine or 10 years old. Births are unrecorded where she’s from.

“I still remember that room, six (sewing) machines with piles of clothes. There was only one tiny window and that window was covered. The door was locked,” Sheikh continues. “Working 12 to 15 hours a day. If we did not meet our deadline, we would not get paid at all. To keep up with the work, I slept very, very little.”

Upon her arrival in Kathmandu, “labor recruiters” almost immediately seized upon Sheikh, sending her into forced labor–modern day slavery–producing clothing for export.

“I was surrounded by pieces of clothing day and night. I truly hated those clothes because they were woven with the energy of my suffering,” Sheikh says. “At the end of each day I would collapse onto that large bundle of clothes and daydream about where they would end up and who would wear them. This is where my childhood was stolen. The inability to dream, to play, to experience joy.”

Once the order was filled, the enslavers running the sweatshop where Sheikh was imprisoned closed it down and left the workers unpaid and homeless. A not uncommon practice.

Sheikh turned to life on the streets where only the miraculous chance meeting with traveling American Leslie John saved her from a future of suffering. Instead, she has built a life of advocacy and entrepreneurship.

Hers is the face of modern-day slavery. Not a relic of the 19th century, but a $236 billion annual global criminal enterprise. And growing. Profits enjoyed by the private sector as the result of slavery grew nearly 40% since it was last measured by the International Labour Organization in 2014.

Some 50 million people worldwide are trapped in modern-day slavery as of 2022 according to the United Nations. Seventy percent are women. Tens of millions are children.

Sheikh retold her story as the keynote address at the third annual Design for Freedom Summit held March 26, 2024, at Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT.

Design for Freedom Summit

The Design for Freedom Summit brings international business executives together with the goal of accelerating the movement to eliminate forced labor–slave labor–from the global building materials supply chain.

“As a society, we have a moral and ethical obligation to end this human rights violation that subsidizes the bottom lines of all our residential, commercial, governmental, and cultural projects around the world,” Sharon Prince, CEO and Founder of Grace Farms and anti-slavery activist, said in opening the Summit. “Right now, projects generally favor accepting the ‘slavery discount’ versus verifying fair labor practices for our raw and composite materials.”

Prince identified the construction industry as the biggest offender of modern-day slavery, both on the job site and through the supply chain.

In the runup to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, headlines around the world highlighted the deadly working conditions experienced by laborers building the stadiums and infrastructure required to host the world’s largest sporting event. Immigrant laborers largely from Nepal, not far from where Sheikh was born.

Modern-day slavery.

A news story with a dateline in Tennessee published the same day as the Summit was held revealed that immigrant children as young as 14 were involved in factory labor producing parts for John Deere and others. Numerous states across the country have eased child labor laws in recent years.

Modern-day slavery.

These “employees” work for little or no money in hazardous and inhuman environments. Long hours. Heavy work. Extreme heat and cold. Nonexistent safety precautions. Abuse.

Prison labor across America.

Modern-day slavery.

For every one of them on a job site, more are laboring on factory floors or sweatshops, or extracting the raw materials that go into our homes, buildings, and landscapes.

The supply chain.


Stone, sand, coal, oil, copper, gold and increasingly lithium for electric car batteries.

The manufacture of concrete and steel.


While slavery and human trafficking are illegal in every country around the world, prosecutions are low and demand is high. Like any other product or service, if there were no demand, there would be no supply. Budgets and timelines. The ‘slavery discount’ Prince speaks of.

Buying blind.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

“You need to know who you’re doing business with,” Leonardo Bonanni, CEO and Founder of Sourcemap, told the Summit.

Sourcemap provides businesses with a detailed assessment of their supply chains, who they’re doing business with and where their materials and labor comes from, in order to assure them they’re not inadvertently supporting modern-day slavery.

Building and construction have lagged behind other global industries when it comes to knowing who they’re doing business with and attempting to assure that work is being performed ethically. While still rife with modern-day slavery, the food and textiles industries have both been way ahead.

Cotton is no longer picked with the accompanying crack of a whip. The garment industry’s “sweatshop sneaker” scandals occurred a generation ago. Everyone has seen a “fairtrade” label on coffee, denoting it has been ethically sourced and produced.

In an effort to catch up, manufacturers are increasingly affixing the Declare label–the nutrition label for products–to a wide range of products.

Conspicuously lacking from the effort to remove slave labor from the building and construction supply chain is any way to measure its progress akin to how “net zero” has become a widely recognized and understood global goal for decarbonization and staving off the worst of the impacts of climate change.

“No one’s keeping score right now on a regular basis in modern slavery,” John Schultz, EVP and Chief Operating and Legal Officer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, told the Summit. “The net zero target in climate really catalyzes everyone, and there’s a constant drumbeat from the scientific community, ‘how are we doing against that target?’ There is no equivalent in the case of modern slavery and as a result, the numbers keep increasing.”

Schultz said HP Enterprises has committed itself to developing an equivalent to “net zero” for the measurement of modern-day slavery.

“We have to be invested in that number as a community, to say this is the human rights tragedy of our time, and collectively we ought to be ashamed that number isn’t zero, because we can control that, we can make that happen,” he added.

Design for Freedom offers a toolkit for design and construction professionals to begin understanding and take action to assure their supply chain is slavery free.

‘Conscious Consumption’

Consumers have a role to play in the movement as well. In addition to looking for Declare labels on purchases, Sheikh and others tout the notion of “conscious consumption.” Giving consideration to what you’re buying–not just what it costs and how it looks, but how was it manufactured and sourced? Ethically? Or are you taking advantage of the “slavery discount” with that cheap shirt or table?

There’s an even simpler solution individuals can practice in combatting modern-day slavery.

“My easy answer to everybody is buy less stuff,” Nora Rizzo, Ethical Materials Director, Grace Farms, told

Do you need five green shirts? Six pairs of sneakers? Four televisions? A second car? An extra tablespoon of sugar in your coffee? Sugar, since the days of plantation slavery through today, has owned one of the worst track records for barbaric labor practices.

“That applies also to your home,” Rizzo adds. “Do you need to renovate your kitchen every 10 years?”

Do you need to buy a new construction home when purchasing an existing property would reduce materials consumption in countless ways?

“Whether you’re doing a home renovation, whether you’re building a new house, whether you’re involved in a construction project, ask questions,” Rizzo said. “You have to ask where these materials are coming from. We have digital product passports on a lot of other materials–in the apparel industry–we are asking for that within the construction industry, and we are getting closer to that happening.”

If an architect, builder, contractor or subcontractor can’t provide satisfactory answers about how they source their materials and labor, find another one. Here, again, the market can create the demand for ethics. Instead of only asking “how much” and “how fast,” ask “how,” and “where,” and “by whom.”

A pain in the neck? Maybe. But we’re talking about slavery. Pennies vs. people. Deadlines vs. dead bodies.

Shop small. Buying food, clothing, furniture and other products from local producers as opposed to giant, international companies reduces the chances your purchase supports modern-day slavery.

“I would also recommend consumers look for healthy products–material health,” Rizzo said. “If your product is not made with toxic chemicals then your product is not going to harm you in your home, and then it also likely didn’t do those things to the workers who are making the product. We find a big connection between factories that are toxic and polluting and the way they treat their workers. If you’re prioritizing healthy materials, locally sourced materials, materials that you know where they came from, there’s likely to be less harm further upstream in the supply chain with the workers that made that product.”

Keep asking questions.

“Each and every one of us should know what we own,” Preeti Bhattacharji, Head of Sustainable Investing, JP Morgan Chase, told the Summit about the extraordinary power and influence investment portfolios, including basic retirement mutual funds, have in combatting modern-day slavery. “If you don’t know what you own, go find out from whoever’s managing your money and ask them, ‘what do I own’ and ‘what can I do about it?’ If they can’t answer that question, fire them. It’s 2024. That paternalistic, ‘oh, don’t worry your pretty little head about what it is you own darling’ is so 2005. Do not accept that.”

Do not accept modern-day slavery. Do not accept the slavery discount. Become a conscious consumer and an advocate on behalf of ethical labor.


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