“The time that I went into the camp and I looked, I was shocked. Where all my expectations and my happiness all got destroyed, that was the minute that it happened.” So testified Sony Sulekha, one of the plaintiffs in the largest human-trafficking case ever brought in America. He and around 500 other Indians had been recruited in 2005 to work in the Signal International shipyard in Mississippi. Each had paid at least $10,000 to a local recruiter working for Signal, expecting a well-paid job and help in getting a green card. Instead they laboured in inhumane conditions, lived in a crowded camp under armed guard and were given highly restricted work permits. Last month a jury awarded Mr Sulekha and four others $14m in damages against Signal and its recruiters. Verdicts in other cases are expected soon. Signal says it will appeal.
Until recently campaigners paid most attention to victims who had been trafficked across borders to work in the sex industry. An unlikely alliance of right-wing Christians and left-wing feminists argued that prosecuting sex workers’ customers would be the best remedy. But the focus is now widening to the greater number of people in other forms of bonded labour—and the proposed solutions are changing. Campaign groups and light-touch laws, backed up by the occasional high-profile prosecution, aim to shame multinationals into policing their own supply chains.
In December Pope Francis and the grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque, together with several other religious leaders, launched the Global Freedom Network, a coalition that tries to press governments and businesses to take the issue seriously. The ILO has launched a fair-recruitment protocol, intended to cut out agents, which it hopes will be ratified by national governments.
Two new philanthropic funds are also being established. The Global Fund to End Slavery, which is reported to have substantial seed money from Andrew Forrest, an Australian mining magnate, will seek grants from donor governments and part-fund national strategies developed by public-private partnerships in countries in which bonded labour is common. The Freedom Fund, launched in 2013 by Mr Forrest (again), Pierre Omidyar (the founder of eBay) and the Legatum Foundation (the charity of Christopher Chandler, a billionaire from New Zealand), finances research into ways to reduce bonded labour.
The Freedom Fund’s first schemes include assessments of efforts to free bonded labour in the Thai seafood industry, the clothing industry in southern India and—a harder problem, since the customers are rarely multinationals—in brick kilns in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
America made human trafficking illegal in 2000, after which it started to publish annual assessments of other countries’ efforts to tackle it. But it has only slowly turned up the heat on offenders within its borders. Australia and Britain have recently passed light-touch laws along the lines of a law requiring transparency in supply chains that was adopted by California in 2010. This requires manufacturers and retailers that do business in the state and have global revenues of at least $100m to list the efforts they are taking to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains. A firm can comply by simply reporting that it is doing nothing. But it seems few are willing to admit this, lest it upset customers or staff, meaning that the issue is forcing its way on to managers’ to-do lists.
Ending bonded labour will require economic as well as legal measures, says Beate Andrees of the ILO. But she also hopes to see some “strategic litigation”. Nick Grono of the Freedom Fund thinks one of the multinational construction firms preparing Qatar to host the 2022 football World Cup could be a candidate. There is evidence of “wilful blindness” to the terms on which migrant construction workers are being recruited, he says. A successful prosecution could be salutary.
Before he escaped, Maung Toe, an immigrant from Myanmar, laboured unpaid for six months on a Thai ship fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. He had been forced aboard at gunpoint and sold by a broker to the captain for $900. It was the first time he had ever seen the sea.
Mr Maung’s story is told by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a charity, in a recent study of trafficking and piracy in Thailand’s seafood industry. The country hosts tens of thousands of trafficking victims, by conservative estimates, many from Myanmar, as well as from Cambodia and Bangladesh. Many of them sweat on trawlers or in vast fish-processing plants. Some were duped by recruitment agents; a few were kidnapped. Others are migrants who were waylaid by traffickers while travelling through Thailand.
Overfishing is partly to blame. Average catches in Thai waters have fallen by 86% since the industry’s large expansion in the 1960s. Such meagre pickings have driven local workers out of the industry and encouraged captains to seek ultra-cheap alternatives. Boats now fish farther afield and stay at sea for months at a time, making slavery harder to spot.
International pressure is mounting. The American government ranks Thailand among the least effective of all countries in fighting trafficking, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria. Food firms in Europe and North America—who together purchase about a third of Thailand’s fish exports—seem concerned. Last year the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, promised tougher enforcement. At a press conference this month, the authorities said they had identified nearly 600 trafficking victims in 2014.
But cynics worry that the military government in power since a coup last May will turn a blind eye again once the immediate threat to exports fades. Frank discussion of the business seems to be discouraged. Two journalists in Phuket—an Australian and a Thai—may face a defamation trial for republishing sentences from a Reuters article alleging that navy personnel had helped traffickers. In January campaigners forced the government to drop a plan to put convicts to work on fishing boats—a policy probably intended to dampen demand for bonded labour. A broader shift towards respecting human rights seems some way off.
Many of India’s “modern slaves” labour in appalling conditions in brick kilns or breaking stones in quarries. Typically they are recruited by agents offering real jobs and then trapped by accepting an advance on earnings, which turns out to be a loan at exorbitant interest that no worker can ever hope to repay. The boss then suggests that the worker bring in his wife and children, and soon the entire family is enslaved. Unpaid debts can be bequeathed from one generation to the next.
Despite having been illegal in India for several decades, such practices continue. Corrupt politicians and police, the caste system and an illiterate workforce with few alternative ways to make a living combine to keep millions in bonded labour. Yet there are examples of activists successfully intervening to free such slaves and, crucially, to keep them free.
One notable example is the Society for Human Development and Women’s Empowerment [nb can’t find a link for this – have they got the name wrong?], an NGO that organises rescues from brick kilns near Varanasi, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It seeks out victims, teaches them their rights, organises them into support groups and works with government officials both to free bonded labourers and to make sure they get benefits they are entitled to and school places for their children. It also provides training, especially to women, so that they can earn money in other ways. Some freed workers have even been helped to set up their own brick kilns.
The Freedom Fund is now piloting a “hotspot” strategy that seeks to show how bonded labour can be eradicated from entire districts by helping the most effective NGOs to work together. Grants of up to $200,000 have been given to 17 NGOs in 27 districts in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where bonded labour is most prevalent.
These efforts, although positive, barely scratch the surface of a huge problem. So the Freedom Fund has recruited the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex and Harvard University’s FXB Centre for Health and Human Rights to study the hotspots to discover what is working and whether it can be scaled up fast. The first results are due in a few months.
And here’s Freedom Fund’s 5m intro to modern slavery
This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of ‘From Poverty to Power’. This personal reflection is not intended as a comprehensive statement of Oxfam's agreed policies.