It is a small world - just not small enough to stop slavery

by Duncan Jepson, Founder of Liberty Asia
Thursday, 19 March 2015 11:18 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Why everyone needs to play an active role to combat slavery, trafficking, forced labour and human exploitation.

The Umbrella Revolution showed Asia how small the region has become. Within seconds of the first tear gas canister hitting the road, images circulated the planet, media support flooded in from the four corners of the planet and requests for local supplies were answered as fast as local transport could get people there. The government found itself in a communications battle far more volatile than that on the streets.

But while the world is certainly much smaller since the Internet, social media apps and mesh networking, it is not nearly small enough. Not for millions of the people left behind in the great digital divide. It is still so large that minorities from Myanmar are trafficked out of the country to southerly peninsulas, Indonesian fisherman find themselves unpaid and unheard in New Zealand, Nepalis journey to Qatar to join construction work are then lost and not found, children harvesting agribusiness crops in countless fields remain unknown, sex workers across the region and of millions of others exploited for their labour go unnoticed, save for the few working for organisations at the grassroots level.

At present, the vast majority of humanity is blind to most of the details of migrant exploitation, sex trafficking and the abuse of children, knowing little more than what is presented in documentaries and the occasional news article about abhorrent instances of victimization, criminal profiteering, and the grime of poverty and corruption. In Asia there is a lack comprehensive, consistent, or longitudinal data, almost no structured and documented regional knowledge and intelligence gathering, and nascent communication and collaboration across organizations that come across human trafficking or forced labour. Extrapolation, risk-based algorithms and gerrymandering with definitions have yet to give us what we need to constrain exploitation, let alone stop slavery.

The J-TIP report  succinctly presents the challenge facing humanity to achieve a slave free world - 44,758 victims were identified during 2013/14 and 5,776 people were convicted of trafficking crimes. As are often repeated, the estimations of the number of people in slavery-like-conditions range from 21 million to 36 million and their exploitation generates approximately US$150billion in profits, though the true figure is perhaps anyone’s guess. These numbers paint a bleak picture, particularly if one thinks about the numbers of those most vulnerable – the poor. In Asia Pacific alone, the number of people in 2011 earning less than US$1.25 is around 160 million, according to the World Bank.

Slavery has always been about people (victims, those that help them and criminals) and money. In Asia, NGOs and government organisations helping and supporting victims on the frontline are generally over-worked and continually under-resourced. A young Cambodian man working the Cambodia-Thailand border in a village near Poipet runs a small programme helping around 200 migrant families a year, each with an average of 4-6 children. He has also just started a bicycle outreach project with some of the migrant teens he helps, so they can help others who are even more isolated and unheard of, for a mere US$6,000 per annum. Last year, the field lost a great contributor when MTV Exit shut its programmes in producing original media content on this issue. Law enforcement in most Asian countries dedicated to fighting trafficking and slavery are under-resourced, constitute low priority teams and are susceptible to corruption. On the money side, the finance and banking industry is only just taking up the challenge of identifying who of their clients may be knowingly or unwittingly involved, and in turn their own involvement. While manufacturers, extractive industries, agriculture, tourism, consumer goods, fishing, the entertainment industry, the garment industry have started earnestly auditing supply chains, all the while hunting for that magical mix of cost, quality and quantity to secure their profits and provide shareholder value. There is much to do.

In the call to action, a number of themes are repeatedly broadcast – collaboration, technology, data, tackling organized crime, legal review and legislation, and the involvement of the private sector and supply chains. What are the aims of these calls, save their value in powerpoints and in grant proposals? They must at least follow the general principle that such activities lead to making the world a little bit smaller. Small enough so that there is a more reliable infrastructure for poor migrants looking for work to do so more safely and so that criminals cannot exploit people and systems to move their criminal proceeds with such impunity. Collaboration should lead to greater sharing of information, skills and resources. See and use technology as tools, not as ends in themselves, to not just build capacity, but develop capabilities and increase NGO professionalism. Finally there must be higher quality information and data to share in a greater effort to support more effective decision-making whether by those fighting crime or by banks and business offering and providing services to their clients.

For the past few decades it has been the same highly dedicated and passionate few who have led the efforts to combat slavery, trafficking, forced labour and human exploitation. And regardless of one’s view of the efficacy of the work, the rest of us have stood unaware and most importantly ignorant of how we can contribute. It is time for each of us all to play our part actively, each helping to make the world a little smaller so it is just a little harder for crimes to be committed and the vulnerable to be exploited. 

Duncan Jepson, a lawyer by profession, is the founder of anti-slavery NGO Liberty Asia. He is also an award-winning director and producer of five feature films and a novelist. He lives in Hong Kong.