SAN FRANCISCO — Justin Dillon's rock band was touring Eastern Europe when he met some college students who told him they were about to get work in the West. They were eager to begin what they were sure would be their new MTV-like lives.
Dillon dug deeper and asked to see their documents. He warned the young women they likely were about to be trafficked into the sex trade or sweatshops.
They brushed him off. They wanted desperately to believe the $2,200 they had paid a facilitator to get them service industry jobs would make all their dreams come true.
"They immediately felt embarrassed, but then emboldened," he recalls of the 2003 exchange. "They said, 'I mean, look around. I'll take my chances on this. You think I'm going to stick around here?'"
That conversation changed his life — and his life's mission.
Today, the 42-year-old Berkeley rocker heads up a popular social media campaign to combat slavery. With a $200,000 grant from the State Department, he recently launched www.slaveryfootprint.org , which helps people identify the slave labor used for their own consumer goods. It is approaching 2 million hits.
He belongs to a coalition of anti-slave labor groups sharing an $11.5 million grant from Google's philanthropy arm.
And now — with the help of a groundbreaking anti-slavery retail law going into effect across California on New Year's Day — Dillon believes the movement is reaching that tipping point where the average consumer can make a difference.
"We need cultural critical mass on this," Dillon said in a recent interview. "Modern-day slavery and human trafficking is far too easy to execute, and far too profitable."
After that 2003 band tour, the singer and songwriter became a man obsessed. He learned there are an estimated 27 million modern-day slaves around the world. He wondered how he could fight the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls, bonded labor and indentured sweatshop servitude.
Dillon started offering up his band for benefit concerts. He produced a 2008 documentary, "Call+Response," which included songs and interviews with the likes of Julia Ormond, Ashley Judd, Cornel West and Madeleine Albright.
His first website, www.chainstorereaction.com , which helps consumers send e-letters to companies, was cited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and used in the research for the California law signed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010.
While some states already prohibit forced labor and criminalize trafficking, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act is the first to tackle the global supply chain.
The law affects an estimated 3,200 companies with a presence in California, including Walmart and Macy's. It requires retailers and manufacturers with gross annual receipts of more than $100 million to disclose what they've done to eliminate slavery in the global supply chain of their goods.
Slavery can mean a sweatshop in India or a cotton field in Burkina Faso, where indentured slaves or child laborers dyed or picked the cotton for those cheap-but-chic garments that found their way under Christmas trees.
The legislation introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg requires companies to audit and certify that their suppliers are complying with international labor standards, as well as provide training to supply-chain managers.
The California Chamber of Commerce and California Retailers Association were among those who argued the requirements would carry huge costs and that private businesses were being enlisted as de facto law enforcement agencies.
Supporters note the law simply requires companies to disclose their efforts — even if they've made none — to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains. While there are no monetary penalties, the state tax board will provide the attorney general a list of those businesses that have not complied and the AG's office will determine what legal action to take.
Monica Richman, a New York partner with the law firm SNR Denton who represents large retailers and fashion brands, said some clients are concerned the law is too broad and the details too murky. But most companies want to do the right thing, she said, and view the law as a tool to benefit business and burnish their brands.
"There are so many really impressive companies in the fashion industry," Richman said. "And they don't want to be known for offering a $500 pocketbook made by a 9-year-old child."
Many big companies, such as GAP, Nike and Ford Motor Co, already adopted clean-labor policies after ugly reports about bonded, child or forced labor in their own supply chains.
Dillon insists Slavery Footprint is not about shaming businesses. It's about educating consumers and allowing them to determine where they will shop — then getting them to tell that story via social media.
"We let everyone know that we're not handing out torches and pitchforks," he said. "But we are developing very sharp carrots in the marketplace."
Slavery Footprint asks visitors to take an online survey about consumer products, clothing and food to determine how many slaves might have worked along the supply chain for those goods.
The online site uses data from several independent sources in compiling an individual consumer's footprint score, including reports from the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Labor and international organizations. Its calculation is based in part on an analysis of hundreds of consumer products and the "likely number of forced laborers that have been involved in creating the product at some stage in the process of production," according to the website.
When women are asked about cosmetics, for example, a box notes: "Every day tens of thousands of American women buy makeup. Every day tens of thousands of Indian children mine mica, which is the little sparkles in the makeup."
The consumer can then share the total slave score on Twitter or Facebook, encourage others to take the survey and then get involved by sending ready-made electronic letters to retailers calling on them to be more diligent when sourcing supplies. A mobile app "Free World," allows you to find out more about your products at point of purchase.
"It allows you to mobilize your value set in a way that uses your free time to be able to free people," Dillon said. "We think the only brand that can really ever make sense is, 'Made in the Free World.'"
The State Department provided the Slavery Footprint grant so Dillon could try to replicate the highly successful "carbon footprint" campaign by environmentalists.
"He's on the cutting edge," said State Department Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, who heads up the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and believes social media are key to fighting slavery.
CdeBaca recalls the case of an 8-year-old girl whose Egyptian parents sold her into slavery to a Cairo couple, who then smuggled her into Irvine, Calif. She was forced to work for years as a domestic, living in squalor and not allowed to go to school.
She was eventually rescued and in December, at 22, became a naturalized citizen who hopes to become federal agent.
"You see something like that and you realize that every one of those 27 million is an individual," CdeBaca said. "And we can save them. We can walk with them on their path to freedom, because these are all people who, if you just give them a chance, can do amazing things."
On the Internet:
Slavery Footprint: www.slaveryfootprint.org
State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons: http://www.state.gov/g/tip