A ray of hope for UN's struggle against human-trafficking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 August, 2010, 12:00am

Working on the assumption that Hong Kong's finance community is reserved, Matt Friedman did not have high hopes when he was in the city last week to secure support and funds for his work against human-trafficking in Southeast Asia.

'There is a perception that the corporate community here is conservative,' Friedman, a native of Connecticut, said.

'I don't usually live with a sense of optimism [in this line of work] ... but I experienced just the opposite.'

Friedman is the Bangkok-based regional project manager for the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (Uniap) which oversees the Mekong region. According to his statistics, roughly 15 million people in Asia alone are trapped in slavery-like conditions, with about a fifth of those involved in sex trafficking.

Globally, the human-trafficking business is worth US$34 billion, making it the third biggest organised crime after drugs and arms - but the donor response rate worldwide stands at a measly 0.014 per cent. In other words, the amount of donor funding to combat trafficking is about US$500 million, versus the estimated amount of profit that traffickers earn annually of some US$34 billion. Uniap defines human trafficking as 'the recruitment, transport, receipt and harbouring of people for the purpose of exploiting their labour'.

Friedman said that this, for example, could involve men being unknowingly led to cross the border from Myanmar into Thailand in search of work, and being held against their will on boats for up to four years with no access to the outside world, or pay, in a foreign country where they are denied any rights. 'They basically work 14, 15 hours a day, seven days a week. If they complain too much or get sick they get thrown off the boat,' Friedman said. 'It's some of the worst things that human beings do to human beings.'

He saw the need for the UN to start co-operating with the private sector to tackle the issue.

The responsibility to put the perpetrators of human-trafficking behind bars has thus far fallen on governments, with close co-operation with civil society, but Friedman noted that despite human-trafficking being a crime, the private sector had not been part of the process.

'A lot of human-trafficking exists in the private world ... it's the rotten apple of business, and allows unfair advantages to sub-sub-sub-contractors who are able to hire labourers at no cost and undercut everyone,' Friedman said. 'Because this is happening in the private sector, we making the philosophical case that it's an issue that needs to be focused on.'

His cause was picked up by Jude Mannion, chief executive of the Robin Hood Foundation, a corporate social responsibility (CSR) consultancy based in New Zealand who took Friedman's agency on as a pro bono client and suggested he start by targeting the corporate community in Hong Kong, where she identifies huge potential.

'Hong Kong has the capacity to develop into a much prouder CSR environment,' she said. 'I see a lot of money here, and the people who have got money are in that generation where they want to reflect on what they can do with that money.'

The two were in town to meet the heads of a number of major financial companies and law firms, and said the reception had been overwhelming, with meetings running well past the normal 45-minute mark and long-term partnerships rather than just one-off donation pledges achieved.

'The legal sector in particular really surprised us. They all wanted to give us their best people ... people wanted to be part of the solution,' Mannion said.

And while he arrived in the city with a sense of pessimism, Friedman was cautiously optimistic by the time he boarded his flight back to Bangkok. 'The sky is the limit because the private sector didn't say no,' he said.