Modern day slavery

Communication and education are key to motivating the corporate world to take a stand



In whatever form it takes, the scourge of slavery remains tangled in the supply chains of too many industries.

Matt Friedman of the nongovernmental organisation The Mekong Club is on a mission to jolt the private sector into action with a strategy of encouragement and education to end this terrible tradition.

Interview by Jan Wisniewski

What does slavery look like today?

It is estimated that there are 36 million people in slavery around the world. Out of that about 25 per cent of the victims are in forced prostitution. The remaining 75 per cent are in forced labour and out of that number 60 per cent are associated with supply chains. So there is a direct relationship with the private sector in this particular issue. Today, around 4.5 million women and girls are in forced prostitution.

In addition to that there a lot of people who are in forced labour circumstances associated with supply chains. For example, the Thai sea food industry has around 350,000 fishermen, and approximately 20 per cent of them are in forced labour. Sometimes these boats will go out for four years at a time and these guys will work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. To get them to work that hard, they are often given stimulants. If they get injured or get ill or if the captain doesn’t like them, they are often thrown off the boats. Or sweatshops, which typically have to do with debt bondage. A person in Myanmar hears that there is work in Thailand, knocks on the factory door, the factory owner says, “I will pay you 50 dollars a month but you have to stay in the factory.”

The person goes in, works for 16 or 17 hours a day for two months, asks for his money and then the factory owner says, “Well it actually costs you 54 dollars to be here. I’m only paying you 50 dollars, so you owe me money”. This form of debt bondage holds people in places for years and years.

Has our understanding of human trafficking changed in recent years?

For the first 15 years human trafficking was all about sex trafficking, but within the last five or six years forced labour issues have started to surface and then within the last two years, the issues of supply chains and the private sector have become emerging issues. On the supply chain side, people claim that, if you look at three or four tiers of a supply chain below the top tier, very few people know what is happening. There could be slavery down there.

Legislation is being put in place in the US, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and in the UK. Both acts say that a company of any size that does any business within California or the UK has to state on their website what they are doing to address human slavery, they have to give training and so forth. The UK act goes one step further – you have to also put out an annual report. In addition to that there are lawsuits taking place. The expectation is that, if slavery is making our products, consumers should know this.

"“The expectation is that, if slavery is making our products, consumers should know this. We are seeing a change in the way human trafficking has been perceived."

We are seeing an emergence of a change in the way human trafficking has been perceived from a NGO, UN and government-type of issue to everyone pointing to the private sector and saying, “you guys are probably part of the problem, especially with forced labour – you need to be involved in addressing this issue.”

What powers do we have to battle slavery?

There is legislation that forces companies to take action and there are lots of lawsuits taking place. The number of articles relating to human trafficking seems to double year on year – since 2012 it went from 21 to 40 to then 80. You have a lot of activist groups who use the California Act and the UK Act to identify what companies are doing. There is a lot of emphasis on naming and shaming and forcing companies to do things.

The Mekong’s Club philosophy is that, while naming and shaming  to a certain extent gets things done, we don’t think it is very efficient. If you have companies that are pulling back, or hiding, or doing anything they can not to engage with the issue, then there is always the possibility that we are not using all of the resources, tools and leadership that are out there. Our approach is to work with companies, to give them the information they need about supply chains, to give them referrals to the best organisations in the world and help them to look deep into their supply chains.

And we do it in a respectful, non-threatening way. Because if they identify these issues themselves, money doesn’t have to be spent by NGOs because the private sector can basically do the work.

So the partnership between the private and public sectors is important?

Profits generated from human slavery are estimated to be 150 billion US dollars a year. The amount of money that goes into addressing it is about 350 million US dollars, or 0.23 per cent of the profits generated. That is like having a slingshot and going after a tank. We are so under gunned we are not able to make much of a difference.

"While naming and shaming to a certain extent gets things done, we don't think it is very efficient."

The number of people that were helped globally – this includes the government, the UN, NGOs working together – was about 48,000 people. So with all our resources last year we helped 0.12 per cent of the victims of human slavery. If we are really going to make a difference, we need to bring the private sector in in a way that adds value.

What’s the motivation for the private sector?

Let me explain the motivation for the financial world as an example. If 150 billion US dollars are generated from slavery, should any of that illegal money get into a bank, that’s money laundering and the bank can get in trouble. So the banks and the financial institutions are beginning to look at how they can put in systems and procedures – the way they do for anti-money laundering, corruption and for other things – to protect them from this kind of a situation.

Former slave fishermen rest at a Myanmar government’s welfare centre upon their return to Yangon, Saturday May 9 2015. A group of 13 Burmese men returned home Saturday, following an Associated Press investigation into the use of forced labour in the Thai seafood industry. The probe revealed that fish caught in eastern Indonesia was tainting supply chains of some of America’s biggest retailers and supermarket chains, including Walmart and Kroger. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

What communication strategy do you adapt towards companies that may face revelations about, say, unsavoury parts of their supply chain?

We generate a lot of media exposure focused on trying to help the private sector, NGOs and the rest of the world to understand there is an alternative to naming and shaming. We’ve done op-eds on this, social networking articles. When Nestlé got in trouble, we commended them for identifying slavery in their supply chain and argued that they should be treated fairly and given time to fix it. What we are trying to do is address two things simultaneously.

One is to help people understand the issue and to address it and protect their business from naming and shaming. The second is to offer a discourse tool kit, that has not just one thing in it – the naming and shaming of corporations – but six or seven things that organisations can basically focus on. Through these various approaches, we’ve been able to help desensitise, the business community, the general public and NGOs.

What can individuals do to help?

One thing we say is be a responsible consumer. If you are about to buy a high-street brand product, go online to see whether or not the organisation you are buying from has a policy. If they do, congratulate them. If they don’t, very respectfully say, “I like your products, I want to buy them, but I see that you have no information about them. I would feel much more comfortable if you had it”. Another thing people can do is use their skills.

For example, we ask the banking world, “If your profit was not money earned, but your profit was the number of slaves reduced, what type of decisions would you make? And what types of programmes would you put in place?” We say the same thing to the tech world and to the legal world. The idea is that we want to draw the private sector in by telling them they have skills, processes, procedures, that are far beyond what the NGO world will ever have the money to be able to buy, so they should get involved by helping us with their ideas and their suggestions.

“Be a responsible consumer. If you are about to buy a product, go online to see whether or not the organisation you are buying from has a policy.”

A concrete example of that is British Telecom. We showed them an app we were working on and their engineers said, “Well we can do better than that”. They had a contest among their 10,000 staff, and the first prize is now being supported in Jakarta, where BT are helping to pay for these types of activities. Cathay Pacific came forward and we negotiated displaying a counter-trafficking film, Not My Life, on their airplanes. If the private sector, the hotel industry, manufacturing were to step up and get involved – imagine how far along we would be.

And what about simply donating?

Donation to the right organisation can really help to make a difference. That includes shelters, rescues for prostitution and many other things. To give an example, I think it cost around 21 Hong Kong Dollars to have a woman who has been rescued from the brothels stay in a shelter for a day. It doesn’t cost that much so if they right amount of money goes to the right organisations, it really does help a great deal.

Anti-slavery legislation

  • The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act was enacted in 2012.
  • The UK Modern Slavery Act came into effect in October 2015.
  • Large manufacturers and retailers doing business in these regions are affected.
  • Company websites must explain the steps taken to ensure there is no slavery or trafficking within their own organisations or supply chains.

Images: Thinkstock, AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Matt Friedman

Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert with more than 27 years of experience as an activist, programme designer, evaluator, and manager.  He is chief executive officer and co-founder of The Mekong Club, an organisation of Hong Kong-based private sector business people who have joined forces to fight human trafficking in Asia. From 2006 to 2012, Matt was the regional project manager of the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. Prior to this (1991-2006), he worked for the United States Agency for International Development in Thailand, Bangladesh and Nepal. He is the author of Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slavery.