In the popular imagination, slavery is a thing of the past; a stain on human history which has been wiped clean. Although slavery has been banned, by law, in almost every country in the world, in truth the number of slaves is higher now than it has ever been.

The Global Slavery Index estimates that 35.8 million people around the world are trapped in slavery today. Modern-day slaves drive a growing industry worth a staggering US$150 billion a year.

The situation exists in every country, but just 10 nations have nearly three quarters of the world's slaves. Seven of those - India, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand - are in Asia, accounting for more than half of all cases.

Although they're all around us, we often fail to see people trapped in servitude because they live in the shadows - imprisoned in private homes, held captive in brothels, marooned on the high seas in fishing boats. Enslaved people also work as miners, agricultural labourers and factory workers. The term encompasses children compelled to beg and fight as soldiers, women forced into marriage and any form of bonded labour in which people are indebted, through deception or coercion, and made to work to repay loans under unlawful and exploitative conditions, sometimes over generations.

The word "slavery" covers a wide variety of human rights violations but its essence remains the same - vulnerable people are deprived of their liberty and subjected to extreme exploitation. They are always unpaid or underpaid; they are frequently overworked and underfed, and subjected to verbal, physical or sexual abuse. Slavery is more than an infringement against individuals, it's a crime that distorts and corrupts human society, and is a symptom of broader societal failure.

Trust Forum Asia is a new event which will be held at the Asia Society on June 17. Organised by Thomson Reuters and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the forum will bring together many leaders in the fight against human trafficking and slavery.

Monique Villa is chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and founder of Trust Women, an annual conference held in London that provides the model for Trust Forum Asia.

"We decided to create a sister event in Asia because slavery is such a big issue there."

The forum will focus on two issues that are especially pertinent in the region - domestic labour and slavery in the fishing industry (see next week's Post Magazine).

"Slavery is a silent crime, in which the victims have no voice and the perpetrators frequently go unpunished," says Villa. "We want to have the traffickers prosecuted and the victims compensated for the years they have spent working for free as slaves."

Villa anticipates intense discussion but says that the primary aim is not talk, but action.

"We hope the delegates will learn from and inspire each other and find ways to cooperate. Trust Women has grown to become a lot more than a conference - it's a movement - and we hope the same will happen in Asia."

Post Magazine has spoken to a number of Trust Forum Asia delegates - modern-day abolitionists who are working to combat human trafficking and slavery.

 

ARCHANA KOTECHA is a British-qualified barrister and head of legal at Liberty Asia, a charity that works to provide solutions to fight slavery and human trafficking on a systemic level.

"The reason that millions of vulnerable people are exploited as modern-day slaves is financial gain, so a key way to fight the trade is by following the money.

"We're working hard to find ways to stop human traffickers from being able to open bank accounts, transfer their money and multiply their profits. They're in the business to get rich so if we can hit their earnings, it's a very effective deterrent.

"Despite the scale of human trafficking crime, globally there are only 10,000 prosecutions a year and less than 6,000 convictions. It's clear that pursuing traffickers through the law courts isn't a complete solution. Traffickers tend to operate in very sophisticated networks, so bringing down one person from the middle or bottom of the food chain doesn't disrupt the organisation. But if you follow the money trail it takes you to the very top of the chain, and offers an opportunity to dismantle the whole network.

"Many migrant workers find themselves in situations of slavery because they pay inflated placement fees and become crushed under the burden of an enormous debt.

"In Hong Kong, for example, there's a series of industries that feed off domestic workers. The agencies in their home countries and those in Hong Kong both take their cut. To make ends meet, [domestic workers] often have to borrow from loan sharks who charge extortionate rates. With 322,000 helpers in the territory, it adds up.

"In Thailand, exports of seafood bring in billions of dollars, but many of the workers aren't paid. There are a lot of people making a fortune off the misery of others.

"Currently, the proceeds of human trafficking go undetected into the banking system and travel freely around it. Money that's generated by drug trafficking, or linked to terrorism, cannot do that. The banks use 'red flags' to ensure that known criminals in these arenas are unable to flush their money through the banking system. The profits of slave labour should be treated in the same way.

"In Hong Kong, anti-money laundering laws are already in place. We don't need to change the rules, we simply need to interpret them so as to include human trafficking on an existing list of forms of organised crime.

"We know the slavery hotspots - fishing in Thailand, palm oil in Indonesia, the garment industry in Bangladesh - and we would expect to see intense scrutiny in those pockets of activity using intelligence from NGOs working in the field. But information isn't flowing from the people on the ground to the bank staff in the towers. We need to create channels for communication. We'd like to see bank personnel receive better training so they're more aware of human trafficking and can apply and enforce the existing regulations to combat it.

"An additional possibility is that illegally earned money seized by the banks could be allocated to a compensation fund. Traffickers' … assets could be used to help victims get back on their feet and rise above the vicious cycle of exploitation, so they can avoid it happening a second time. A system of compensation would also encourage more victims to come forward and give evidence, boosting efforts to mount criminal investigations.

"As a financial centre, and hailed as one of the best models of the rule of law in the region, Hong Kong has the opportunity, the resources and the infrastructure to lead this aspect of the fight against human trafficking. It's an opportunity we hope the government will grab with both hands."

 

CECILIA FLORES-OEBANDA is founder and president of the Visayan Forum Foundation, which fights child labour and human trafficking in the Philippines and provides support for victims of slavery.

"According to the United Nations, 400,000 women and 100,000 children are trafficked in the Philippines annually. We believe that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"Many trafficked females are domestic workers. They live hidden in their employers' houses, so they're invisible in society and aren't recorded in the national statistical data.

"Employment takes place on an informal basis, so domestic workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. They may be forced to work long hours for multiple employers and be paid very little. They may suffer sexual harassment or physical abuse.

"Domestic workers are frequently coerced into paying large fees to brokers who arrange their recruitment. They're then forced to work to repay the debt. Children who aren't old enough to work, legally, will have their documents falsified. The youngest victim we've rescued was only eight years old. She was sold into service by her parents to pay off a loan.

"Sexual exploitation is another huge issue. Typically, traffickers promise women and girls from poor rural areas jobs as waitresses or domestic workers in cities. When they arrive, they're delivered to a brothel and entrapped. Many girls come from indigenous communities and the traffickers might spend a month or two 'repackaging' them. They bleach their skin to make it paler and straighten their hair if it's curly. They teach them how to serve drinks, how to lure customers. If the girls refuse, they will be beaten. They may also addict them to drugs, so they will be more compliant. We've seen cases where girls have been forced to accept 15 clients a day.

"Most victims of human trafficking aren't abducted or kidnapped. They usually know the traffickers, who may be members of the same community, or even a relative.

"An emerging issue is cybersex trafficking, in which women and children perform live sex shows online. Many victims are misled about what's involved. Traffickers even persuade parents that it's acceptable for their children to do it, because there's no physical contact.

"This is a difficult crime to fight because traffickers operate in their own homes. They use sophisticated techniques to hide their digital footprint. It's also complicated with regard to jurisdiction. Responsibility for cybercrime lies with both the source country, ie, the Philippines, and the customers' countries, so the different stakeholders have to coordinate efforts.

"Visayan Forum staff work to intercept traffickers and their victims as they travel from one place to another. The Philippines is an archipelago, so boats are a common form of transportation. We train the shipping companies, especially the staff in the ticketing office, to identify possible victims. For example, if a woman buys tickets for 20 girls who come from different places and aren't related to her, that's a red flag. They'll seat the group where they can be monitored and the crew on board will ask questions - where are the girls going? Do they know each other? If they have jobs, then do they have a contract? Do they know their destination address? Is their group leader 'taking care' of their cellphones?

"The crew will alert us and, before the group disembarks, we will be waiting at the port with the police.

"We also guard international departure points, including the sea ports that serve as a backdoor to Malaysia and Indonesia, and the airport in Manila.

"We take care of rescued girls at halfway houses at the ports or, if they require long-term support, they come to live at our Center of Hope. We provide a package of services including therapy, education and skills training. We also counsel their families and assess their capability to protect the girls, should they return home. Older girls might stay with us until they're ready to live independently.

"We recently launched an initiative aimed at young people called iFIGHT. We go into schools to teach students how to identify traffickers. We urge them to look for warning signals and to report suspects in their communities. We're targeting two million youths and we hope this will be extremely effective in the fight against trafficking."

 

ENI LESTARI is from Indonesia and has worked as a domestic helper in Hong Kong for 16 years. She is chair of the International Migrants Alliance.

"I'm from a small town in east Java. My parents ran a market stall. They worked really hard with the intention of sending me and my two siblings to college. They wanted us to have better opportunities than they did.

"But, in the late 1990s, during the Asian financial crisis, the economy crashed. My parents lost all their money and ended up heavily in debt. I couldn't go to college or find a decent job. A friend suggested going overseas to work as a domestic helper. I am extremely close to my family and didn't want to leave them, but the situation was desperate.

"The broker offered me a salary of HK$2,000. I didn't know it was less than the legal minimum. He introduced me to an agency and I enrolled at their training centre, to learn cookery, childcare and Cantonese.

"I was confined there for five months. I stayed in a huge dormitory with about 100 other women. We queued for food, we queued to take a bath, it was airless and dirty. We weren't allowed out to visit our families. I was lucky because my family visited me every week but other girls came from far away, so no-one visited them.

"It was like being in a prison. I started to lose hope and I fell sick several times.

"Then I moved to Hong Kong and started working for a family from mainland China living in Fanling. The apartment was tiny and I had to share a bunkbed with the oldest boy, who was 14. I slept on the lower bunk but there was no mattress, just wooden boards.

"I wasn't paid for three months. I didn't get a day off for four months. I didn't have enough to eat. I wasn't allowed to sit on the sofa - I had to stand or sit on the floor. They locked me inside when they went out and I wasn't allowed to talk to other people.

"Sometimes I cried at night but the son complained to his parents and they were angry with me. They also ordered me to stop praying, even though, as a Muslim, I pray every day. Bit by bit they were taking away my identity.

"I felt very tortured inside. I told my agency - who had taken my passport and contract away - that I couldn't handle it. I asked them to help me but they refused.

"On my first day off, I met other helpers and told them my problems. No-one knew how to help me - there was very little access to information or support back then. Eventually, I got the phone number of the Mission for Migrant Workers and they told me what I should be paid and how much time off I should have. So I ran away. I had HK$150 in my pocket.

"I stayed at the Bethune House Migrant Women's Refuge for five months. I began to learn about labour rights and resolved that I would never be bullied or cheated again.

"As I acquired knowledge, I started to counsel other helpers I met.

"Of the Indonesians working abroad, 70 per cent are female domestic workers. The government issues licences to private agencies that oversee the export of migrant workers. This 'one door exit' system has resulted in widespread exploitation and abuse. The agencies' training camps are extremely badly run, with no formal curriculum.

"The government should take responsibility for training migrant workers, instead of agencies. They should employ professional teachers, to ensure students learn the language and culture of their destination country. They should also educate workers about their labour rights in the receiving countries. Agencies usually hide that information. And they should teach personal safety. The reason so many helpers clean windows high up in tower blocks, and occasionally fall out, is because they don't know it's illegal.

"Another issue is that agencies frequently falsify documents and change the identity of migrant workers. If a worker's documentation is incomplete, they will buy new documents because it's more expedient than finding the originals. But if you travel abroad without proof of who you really are, it makes you more vulnerable.

"The agencies also confiscate the workers' school, land and marriage certificates, to ensure they repay fees they owe. They will pass these, along with passports, to the agencies in the receiving countries. This means the workers can't leave their jobs, even if they suffer terrible exploitation.

"The Indonesian government should create legislation to guarantee the employment contracts of migrant workers. Many receiving governments are opposed, but [Jakarta] should bargain harder for it. They should also enable criminal charges to be brought against agencies that violate human rights and force them to compensate exploited workers.

"The government should also involve migrant worker representatives in decision making. Instead they call in the 'experts', who recommend policy changes that don't reflect the reality of our situation.

"More than anything, I'd like to see the Indonesian government doing more to tackle the poverty, inequality and corruption in our country. We should be able to make a decent living, and lead a proper and dignified life back home."

 

KATE KENNEDY is the chief executive of Hagar Australia, a specialist after-care agency that works with women and children who have survived trafficking and severe abuse in Cambodia, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

"We're seeing growing numbers of vulnerable girls from northern Vietnam being trafficked into China to become brides for Chinese men. The demand has been created in part by China's one-child policy. Due to sex-selective abortions favouring male babies, there's a shortage of women and many men struggle to find brides.

"The Chinese men buy their brides from brokers. It's possible that some of them are unaware of the abuse that takes place. The victims come from rural areas blighted by extreme poverty. They're usually illiterate with little opportunity for employment beyond subsistence farming.

"Brokers don't typically approach a girl directly. Instead they target her via a family member, usually a male. In some cases it's a cold, hard sell. Usually it's not that clear cut. Brokers often persuade families that they're offering a good opportunity - that the girl will enjoy a better standard of living and be able to send money to her family. They encourage the girls to entertain romantic visions of a better future, exploiting their hopes and their naivety.

"In other instances the girls are completely deceived. We know of one case in which a minibus was driven up to China, full of young women who had been told they were getting a free holiday. It was only when they arrived that they realised they weren't going home.

"We're currently seeing a new recruitment pathway emerging with the proliferation of mobile phones. Brokers are meeting young women online, in chat rooms. They befriend them and gain their trust before meeting them in person.

"In a typical scenario, the girl will travel to China with the broker. On arrival she'll be passed to someone else, taken to a house and contained. She won't speak the same language as her husband. He is likely to confiscate her travel and identity documents. Often the girls can't read their passports and have no idea how important they are.

"In some cases the girls are exploited by their husbands alone. In other cases they might be abused by a group of men, or forced to work in a brothel.

"Some young women escape and find their way to a police station. If the police believe her she'll be taken back to Vietnam and delivered to a social service just over the border. If the police don't believe her, or aren't supportive, she will be taken back to her husband. Money might change hands.

"Hagar works with the girls who make it back to Vietnam. The first step is for a case manager to conduct an immediate assessment to determine if medical aid is required - is she malnourished? Has she been physically harmed? Is she pregnant? Does she have an STD?

"After physical needs are met, the next step is psychological recovery. The girls are usually completely traumatised and often demonstrate symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. They need intensive counselling and therapy. We see this as absolutely essential because, unless the trauma is addressed, people can't move on with their lives successfully.

"Going home presents many challenges for survivors. There's a good chance that a family member was complicit, and that relative is probably male and has authority. Additionally, virginity is very important for young women and her currency to marry will have diminished. There's a saying in the region that 'girls are like white linen' - the implication being that if they get stained, ie, lose their virginity, you can't be made clean again.

"Once the survivor is emotionally stable, Hagar provides them with a basic education. We offer vocational training and employment placement. This is crucial because, if the girl is illiterate, has already lost her virginity and has no economic means, she's extremely vulnerable to future exploitation. We look for gaps in the market - it might be dressmaking or hairdressing - and help them establish a small business. If they can generate an income it raises their social status and offsets some of the damage to their reputation.

"We don't know how many girls have been trafficked in this way and are still imprisoned in China - we only have data on those who have escaped and returned to Vietnam. One study identified 8,000 Vietnamese girls who had travelled to marry Chinese men in one province alone. That's one example among many, and gives us a clue as to the scale of the problem.

"What is clear is that this is an increasingly prolific trafficking route. More Vietnamese girls are returning from China every year and Hagar is expanding its services to meet growing need."

Next week: trafficking in the fishing industry. For details on Trust Forum Asia, go to asiaforum.trustwomenconf.com.

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