What Can Be Done About Modern Slavery and Trafficking?
27 Nov 2018

What Can Be Done About Modern Slavery and Trafficking?

I often am asked about my 18th century ancestors who were prosperous merchants when slave trading fueled the Atlantic economy.  Though nothing can erase this dark chapter in our nation’s history, we can learn from the past to focus on the 40 million slaves in the world today – far more than in the 18th century.

The prevention and prosecution of modern slavery and trafficking is of relatively recent interest to private philanthropy; its metrics are still not fully defined.  The Global Slavery Index, a project of the Walk Free Foundation, recently agreed with the UN’s International Labor Organization on a total of 40.3 million victims (71% are women and girls), that includes forced marriages as well as forced and child labor (25% in domestic service), trafficking, and sexual exploitation (12% of the total).  But if one considers the “flow” figure – the number of humans who have experienced slavery at some point in their lives – numbers shoot up to 89 million.  Half the victims are in some form of debt bondage, including the 400,000 Nepalese working abroad who will never manage to repay their recruiters.  Half the victims are in the Asia-Pacific region: Cambodians in Thai brothels, Indonesians on Korean fishing boats, children in Indian brick kilns, unpaid cotton pickers in Uzbekistan or garment workers in Chinese factories in Myanmar.  But many labor under our noses on construction sites, in nail parlors, sweatshops, brothels and even in fine homes.

Trafficking rakes in annual profits of $150 billion.  War, climate change or simply the consequences of unchecked development are driving unprecedented numbers of humans into the hands of traffickers.  Thanks to the Internet, sex trafficking has become so sophisticated that for every Nepalese child rescued from a fake orphanage supplying brothels, another takes its place.  Laws exist everywhere but are not enforced; governments move at a glacial pace, often resenting negative publicity (India has the greatest number of victims but regularly shuts down anti-slavery NGOs).  Indeed, the 2,000 NGOs working in this issue area have rescued just 60,000 victims and prosecuted just 14,897 cases.  How can private philanthropy hope to make a difference?

Donors today realize increasingly that the world’s toughest social issues will be solved only by harnessing market forces.  The private sector can act quickly and take risks that governments avoid.  The modern slave trade is a prime example: by funding investigative journalism and strategic litigation, donors can influence the supply chains of the world’s largest companies.  Banks and shareholder activists can add their clout.  Both Transparentem, founded in 2015 by Ben Skinner (author of the landmark 2008 book “A Crime So Monstrous”) and the Thompson Reuter Foundation (whose “Stop Slavery Award” attracts Apple, Adidas, Marks & Spencer, Wallmart and Hewlett Packard) fund investigative journalists who legally uncover evidence of forced labor or exploitation in a corporate supply chain.  Companies are handed these reports and expected to announce remedial measures – or else their boards, investors and major media outlets are alerted.  Transforming the attitudes of big business is key to fighting modern slavery.

The Thompson Reuter Foundation (its “Trust Law” initiative supports the legal needs of 400 NGOs in 175 countries through 80 law firms working pro-bono) and the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center are two examples of organizations pioneering strategic litigation and quality legal aid for victims.   Other groups undertake innovative front-line initiatives around rehabilitation (victims are often just sent home where they are soon re-trafficked, or locked away in shelters while their trials drag on), prevention campaigns, Internet trafficking networks, and giving voices to victims.  But the most commendable efforts are those of groups like the Freedom Fund (a donor-advised fund) that unites 95 NGO partners and invests in such “non-sexy” but vital aspects of this massive challenge as measurement and evaluation.

It took a horrendous civil war to end slavery in the United States.  Today, American courts can prosecute a foreign agent if there is some connection to this country such as a corporate supply chain.  The world is waking up (seven events took place at the September 2017 UN General Assembly), interfaith initiatives are forming; now is the time for American donors to come forward.


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