1998 Gross Grad is on a Mission
Six years ago, more than 1,100 of Bangladesh’s working poor were crushed and buried under concrete when the eight-story Rana Plaza Factory collapsed.
Some of the 2,500 injured survivors later recounted how they had protested working in a building that was obviously crumbling and had locked fire escapes. But their pleas met deaf ears, and they were forced into the building to earn a much-needed $30 a month, sewing clothing for global retailers.
In the rubble were the brand labels of some high-profile American and European companies. Jessica Slattery, a foreign service officer, who worked at that time in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and 1998 graduate of Gross Catholic, was on the ground in Bangladesh shortly after the disaster, working alongside stakeholders to improve conditions.
According to Forbes magazine, the most recognizable company was JCPenney, through its Joe Fresh apparel line. Walmart did not have any business in the building at the time of the collapse, but previously used workers there to make its jeans.
In the months that followed the deadliest garment industry accident in modern history, Slattery was interviewing survivors, and meeting with Bangladeshi officials and the international business and government communities to find solutions to a variety of exploitations.
Supply chains can be ripe with egregious human rights violations, Slattery said, such as child labor, forced labor, and the lack of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, among other things.
“It was really moving,” Slattery said of interviewing survivors. “These people – women in particular in certain societies- can be marginalized. They have no power, no voice to speak up for themselves.”
“She doesn’t get that chance,” Slattery said of garment workers at the bottom of a long supply chain. So Slattery’s mission is to speak and fight for them.
Progress came in the form of fire, building and worker safety compliance agreements, signed and implemented by global companies. This led to inspections that shut down 900 factories by the Bangladeshi government for violations, according to The New York Times.
But more still needs to be done, especially in the area of workers’ rights to unionize and call attention to abuses, she said.
Labor and human rights issues “are definitely my areas of passion,” Slattery said.
In addition to providing policy analysis in Bangladesh, Slattery has served in Brussels at the U.S. Mission to the European Union, covering human rights and political affairs. She was dispatched to Nepal to investigate the deaths of migrant workers. But that assignment quickly changed when an 8.1 earthquake hit Kathmandu, toppling buildings and creating landslides that killed 9,000 people. Her attention then turned to helping hundreds of traveling Americans separated or missing in the disaster.
“I spent one night just making rice,” she said.
Her assignment in Haiti, a Caribbean country in political and economic crisis, was especially difficult. She was evacuated several times in an armored vehicle, fleeing political unrest and natural disasters.
Despite the dangers, Slattery said she is out to make the world a better place. She feels a responsibility to improve the lives of others.
“Once your eyes are open to seeing the struggles of others,” she said of poverty in developing countries, “it’s shameful to ignore what I’ve seen and go on with my privilege.”
Slattery walked away from privilege about 10 years ago when she quit her job as an associate in a large law firm, making more than a comfortable salary as a business and commercial litigator.
“Not a day went by that I felt good about the contribution I was making with my work,” she said in a recent talk at Gross to a meeting of the Young Catholic Professionals, Omaha Chapter.
“I took work that appealed to my pocketbook, rather than my conscience,” she said. “I found my sense of self ripping apart at the seams.”
Through much introspection, Slattery focused on issues of morality and social justice, the underpinnings of her Catholic faith.
“I felt a deep connection to the underlying currents of servant leadership and the importance of finding my authentic, meaningful vocation,” she said.
She eventually found that as a U.S. Diplomat for the State Department where she can use her education and her position as a human rights officer to work for something she believes in.
“I have the honor to advocate that the voices and perspectives of the people in the world who have no power are taken into account when the United States makes foreign policy toward those with power,” Slattery said.
Through investigations and negotiations, Slattery said her job is to support diplomacy and solve problems before they escalate. She has no regrets of changing careers.
“It’s incredible,” she said of her job. “I really love it.”
And she challenges others to also turn careers into a calling.
“If you don’t know your purpose yet,” she told the Young Catholic Professionals, “make your purpose to find your purpose.”
Recalling the words of Pope Francis, Slattery said, “We have to put human beings back at the center of things, and mend and heal our common social fabric.”
Let your calling fight injustice and inequality, she said. Let your calling reflect dignity and advocate for shared prosperity. And let your calling alter the status quo.
“I advocate for dignity, opportunity, and voice for the millions of men, women, and children who are victims of forced labor, human trafficking, and exploitation through work,” she said. “Children who are made to be soldiers, teenage girls who are beaten and forced into prostitution, and textile workers deep in the corporate supply chain compelled to risk their lives in decrepit buildings for little or no pay.”
About Gross Catholic
One of Nebraska’s premier private schools, Gross Catholic High School is a faith and family-based community committed to developing Christian leaders through academic excellence in the Marianist tradition. Recognized locally for its outstanding education, welcoming atmosphere, competitive sports programs, engaging activities, robust faith, and boundless service work, Gross Catholic has energized the Omaha area for over 50 years. We are Faithful, Compassionate, and Driven! We are Gross Catholic!
To discover the Gross Catholic difference, contact us at 402.734.2000 or visit our Admissions page at grosscatholic.org.