Executives help battle human trafficking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

They're more used to waging boardroom battles and plotting corporate strategies. But now some of Hong Kong's most high-powered professionals have been recruited by the United Nations as James Bond-style secret agents in the war against human trafficking.

Executives from Hong Kong law firms, banks, accounting firms and telecom companies have signed up to the Mekong Club - set up by a UN task force to use the financial muscle, brain power and expertise of 'city slickers' to fight human traffickers.

As well as financing anti-trafficking projects, the newly formed club will parachute top lawyers in to tackle court cases around the region, use the financial expertise of its members to trace traffickers' cash trails, and deploy telecom experts to set up trans-border hotlines for victims.

The initiative is being led by the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), which tackles trafficking in six Mekong countries - China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. An estimated 9.5 million people across Asia are victims of trafficking.

The Mekong Club's chairman, lawyer David Hall-Jones, expects the group's work to begin in earnest in April and said he wanted members to take 'a task-force approach to attack specific high-intensity slavery locations in Asia on a case-by-case basis'.

'We'll be asking businesses to help us formulate the best IT, communications and operational strategies,' he said. 'We want to work with Asia's best corporate minds to tackle human slavery.

'I believe Hong Kong is ready to show the world that this city can lead the way in fighting the trafficking of humans.'

Matthew Friedman, regional project manager for the UNIAP, said he was taken aback by the enthusiastic response of Hong Kong professionals, many of whom will operate under the cloak of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the work they are undertaking.

'There are a lot of people in Hong Kong who are successful and have a good job and a good life and they really want to give something back,' he said.

'I went to one office and I was sitting down with the private-sector people and they pretty much said: 'You have 15 minutes.' There was a senior partner there; when I first saw him, I thought he would be on his BlackBerry the whole time.

'Within 10 minutes of hearing some of the stories, he had put his BlackBerry away. Within half an hour, he was up to the table. Within 45 minutes, he was leaning forward and saying: 'Have you guys thought about this? Have you thought about that? What about this?' It was almost like a spark went off.

'I feel within the private sector there are a huge number of people who want to give something. The concept of the Mekong Club is to see whether we can co-opt that spirit.'

The opportunity to tackle human trafficking is irresistible for many people, Friedman said.

'It is just the right thing to do. This is about slavery. It is something that is morally repugnant, and they want to do something to help.

'It gives people challenges related to humanity. It involves human beings. It is about people in terrible situations in the same world we share. Why wouldn't people want to be involved in that?'

The UNIAP is working with Robin Hood Asia, a New Zealand-based consultancy for corporate social responsibility.

Founder and chief executive Jude Mannion said the project gave Hong Kong people the chance to be 'heroes'. 'Human trafficking is a vast criminal problem. The game has to change if we are going to make any impact on this in our lifetime, and that is why we are turning to Hong Kong-based businesses to help.'

Hong Kong was an ideal base for the counter-trafficking initiative because of its strategic location and the wealth of expertise in areas such as telecommunications, logistics and technology, which can be used to combat trafficking - as well as the city's deep pockets.

'Their efforts will be heroic - heroic in the eyes of millions of vulnerable people and also in the eyes of the six Mekong governments we work closely with,' Mannion said.

Friedman said: 'Trafficking happens within the realm of bad business, of rotten business. So who better to address fixing that than the private sector?

'People in the private sector tend to work with a different kind of accountability and bottom line. They have an efficiency and urgency about them.

'That kind of insight is instrumentally important to us.'

The initiative is believed to be the first of its kind worldwide, but Friedman said: 'This offers the possibility of being a model not just for Southeast Asia but for South Asia and for other parts of the world.'

Hall-Jones said the Mekong Club's work was expected to begin in earnest after a meeting of businesses which have pledged support to the project on April 26.

Details of the Mekong Club are available at TheMekongClub.org.