Five things to read about... modern slavery

1 February 2016

Modern slavery is a resilient, complex scourge that blights almost every country on earth.

Although there are no easy or quick fixes for the global problem, small acts can make a difference to individual victims, as Sophie Otiende, a consultant in Nairobi with the nonprofit organisation Awareness Against Human Trafficking, has shown. Using a smartphone and What’sApp, she helped 31 sex slaves escape from Libya to build new lives in Kenya.

Cambodian builder Seuy San, who crossed the border into Thailand in search of work, thought he would die when he was forced into service on a fishing boat and drugged to make him work harder and longer. One Laotian slave, who fell ill, was thrown into the sea as a warning to the others. San owes his life to a cook who took pity on him, helping him escape. The tragedy is that thousands of Cambodians and Laotians still work in Thailand in such inhumane conditions – and some migrants who escape from slavery are so poor they cross the border again hoping they’ll be lucky enough to find legal work.

San’s experience is not exceptional. New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, who spent a year investigating ‘The Outlaw Ocean’, discovered extensive, sophisticated criminal networks, fronted by seemingly legitimate recruitment agencies, that tricked seafarers into working on ships where they were enslaved, indebted, beaten and sometimes killed. Though these victims were often forced to work on Taiwanese tuna longliners, Urbina’s research showed that the problem spanned the Philippines, Singapore and Taiwan. His most chilling finding was that governments in the three countries have not taken action to target the enslavers.

The Freedom Fund and the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Centre argue that empowering slaves to sue businesses would be a step forward. In an article for CNN, the Fund’s CEO Nick Grono and the Centre’s president Martha Vandenberg point out that “strategic litigation broke the back of the British slave trade” in the 18th century. They write: “The dirty secret of today’s human trafficking is that almost no one is held accountable.” With a network of private lawyers, many working for free, they hope to hit companies that have slavery in their supply chain where it hurts: on the bottom line.

Organisations inclined to assume that modern slavery has not contaminated their supply chains could do worse than read this story from The Economist. It’s old, but a useful overview and the headline says it all: “Modern slavery: Everywhere in (supply) chains”.

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