I was the moderator for a panel at the United Nations this morning on modern slavery, defined as forced labor or forced marriage. The Walk Free Foundation* released its fourth study of modern slavery, conducted in 48 countries with 71,000 respondents. The 2018 Global Slavery Index calculates that there are 40 million people now enslaved around the world, largely in developing markets.

There were a few stunning findings, in particular that the U.S. has 403,000 modern slaves, working under forced labor conditions. They tend to be Hispanic farm laborers or women compelled to marry early in life. The U.S. is also the No. 1 importer of at-risk goods – products that may be produced through slave labor. In total, the U.S. imports $144 billion of at-risk goods each year; 40 percent of the total in G-20 economies; and three times as much as the next biggest importer, Japan. The at-risk products include electronics, garments, timber and fish.

China is the largest source of at-risk goods, with a particular focus on electronics and garments. Vietnam was the second largest source, followed by India.

North Korea has the highest rate of modern slavery, with one in 10 workers forced into jobs by the government. The at-risk products include coal (largely exported to China), timber and gold.

The most compelling part of the briefing was the story of Park Yeon-mi, a 23-year-old North Korean woman. She and her mother fled across the Yale River into China. They were met by local officials, who gave them the choice of being married to Chinese farmers or to be shipped back to North Korea to face a possible death sentence. She watched her mother be raped by a local bureaucrat. At age 13, she chose the lesser of two evils, to be given to a farmer for $200, a payment to the Chinese official. Two years later, the farmer let her go. She found her mother with the help of local missionaries, who then funded their passage to Mongolia, where they had to walk for days in sub-freezing weather to a port, en route to Seoul and then the U.S. I asked her what gave her the courage to leave. She said that she saw compassion for the first time with the missionaries and that she wanted to be in a country where she would be able to say that she loved and was loved.

Andrew Forrest, former CEO and current non-executive Chairman of mining company Fortescue Metals Group and founder of the Walk Free Foundation, put it very bluntly this morning: “This is the ultimate human rights issue. We need to have governments pass legislation that mandates tracking of goods that are at risk for modern slavery. We also must have the large multinationals take seriously their responsibility to consumers to monitor supply chain and have a zero-tolerance approach to abuse.”

There are days in our business when you feel that our work makes a real difference. If we can prevent even one young woman from suffering the fate of Park Yeon-mi, we will have done our job well.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

*Edelman client

Walk Free Foundation