Human rights

Hong Kong is showing way for Asia to fight modern slavery, says head of NGO that harnesses corporate power to do good

Nowhere in Asia has had more exposure to issues around human trafficking, says Matt Friedman, head of NGO the Mekong Club that works with companies to tackle the problem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 9:29am

Matt Friedman is embedded in the Bank of China Tower. “Embedded” is the word the activist and modern-day abolitionist uses. As CEO of the Mekong Club, the international human-trafficking expert has spent the past five years courting and cajoling large corporations and banks in Hong Kong, and the hard work is starting to pay off. The city is well on the way to being the region’s leader in understanding and addressing modern slavery, he says.

“There is no city in Asia that has had more exposure to this issue. With the tools that are being developed and the pledge that is coming out, I think Hong Kong will eventually be a best practice when it comes to corporate involvement in ... helping to address human-trafficking,” says Friedman.

He’s not kidding about exposure. Friedman has given about 500 talks in Hong Kong over the past five years. In that time, he says, he reached upwards of 30,000 people – not bad for a man whose greatest fear is public speaking.

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By 2012, Friedman had spent six years as regional project manager of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in Thailand. He knew that to tackle the problem, the key was to focus on supply chains – 70 per cent of people trafficked are in forced labour and 60 per cent of them are associated with supply chains.

He’d also been close enough to the issue for long enough to get a sense of what worked and what didn’t. Naming and shaming the private sector, he quickly learned, didn’t get anyone anywhere.

“It creates such a chilling effect that the corporations pull back and don’t want to get involved,” says Friedman.

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He began visiting Hong Kong to speak to people at the top of the supply chains – those in retail, manufacturing and banking. This was a leap of faith because the perceived wisdom was that Hong Kong didn’t care.

“I heard it over and over – Hong Kong is all about money and greed; they will use slaves to get shareholders,” he says.

He spoke to Hong Kong government officials about human-trafficking and was told there was no such problem. Unconvinced, he visited Wan Chai and spoke to 10 women working in bars. Four of them, he says, would have been classed as trafficking victims – they had been either tricked or threatened into prostitution.

“People look at the woman in Wan Chai and say, ‘If she was a trafficking victim, why does she seem so happy, drinking and having fun with the customers?’ Well, if the traffickers know where their family is, and they have their documents, what is that person supposed to do?”

The Global Slavery Index estimates there are 29,600 people in modern slavery in Hong Kong – half in forced prostitution, with the rest being domestic helpers in debt bondage.

“Mostly from Indonesia and mostly even before they came here. They are told they can’t leave, are forced to work and threatened – debt bondage is a form of modern slavery,” says Friedman.

I heard it over and over – Hong Kong is all about money and greed
Matt Friedman

The good news is that he discovered Hong Kong does care. Speaking to people one-on-one in major corporations he realised that they didn’t know much about human-trafficking, and when they did they realised it was a serious business risk. The problem was they didn’t want to turn to NGOs or the UN because they didn’t want to risk finger-pointing.

An obvious advantage of Hong Kong is that it’s the regional headquarters for so many banks and firms, which means that changes made here stand to positively affect the rest of Asia.

His timing was good because new legislation around the world was giving businesses an incentive to take note. According to the International Labour Organisation, US$150 billion is generated from modern slavery globally each year.

“It becomes a major business risk for a bank because if any of that money goes into a legitimate bank, the bank gets penalised for money laundering and they could be fined,” says Friedman.

The 2012 California Transparency in Supply Chain Act required companies earning profits of US$100 million to report on what they were doing to eradicate slavery and human-trafficking in their supply chains. Later, in 2015, the UK Modern Slavery Act was the first piece of UK legislation focusing on the prevention and prosecution of modern slavery. Finally, the issue had a direct bearing on the private sector.

“Five years ago you had very little interest in this topic. Now, manufacturers, hotels, banks, everyone is stepping up and looking at this very assertively and getting involved in helping to address the problem,” says Friedman.

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After four trips to Hong Kong he had garnered a strong support base in the private sector.

“Individuals from Ernst & Young, Winston & Strawn and Sharma Hotel Group came together and said, let’s create an NGO that works with the private sector in a positive, supportive, respectful way. No naming and shaming. No going after them. Just encouraging them to understand what they need to know to address the issue,” he says.

That’s how the Mekong Club came about. Perhaps because he uses office space in a law firm in Central – “embedded in the corporate world” – Friedman does not come across as your typical NGO worker. There is no banging of drums and pointing out the evils of big business. He takes a far more softly-softly approach, one that takes account of how businesses work and gives them the space in which to respond.

The first step was to set up working groups – banking and finance, footwear and apparel, retail and hospitality – which meet four times a year. Within these groups are senior executives who have shown a willingness to roll up their sleeves and get something done.

“If you’re going to bring private sector people together four times a year, you better make sure that you have action taking place in between,” he says.

Each of the four groups has its own focus. The banking group noted that many people didn’t understand the issue, so they created “lift type pitch” training for those in compliance to be able to explain to senior directors, and three-hour training packages to use across the industry.

“We give them an A to Z of the issue – what’s the problem, how does it manifest itself in the private sector, what’s the relevance to the banks and what can the banks can do to address it,” he says.

Volunteers in the group are also looking at specific crimes and breaking them into component parts to see the relationship between criminal activities, the victim and where the money moves. These typologies – specific to Hong Kong – will be ready in four months.

Armed with a good understanding of what human trafficking is and how it operates, the banks will be better positioned to analyse transaction behaviour and raise the alarm if something looks suspicious.

The retail group is focused on e-learning and has created 15 three-minute films focused on different aspects of human slavery. They will be available in 15 languages so people across Asia will have a better understanding of the issue.

“How can we expect people in mainland China to know about modern slavery when 97 per cent of the material is in English?” says Friedman.

The manufacturing group was most interested in risk-assessment tools. It is working with the Mekong Club to collect as much information as possible so it can offer advice about the risks related to the manufacture of cotton. Lessons learned will have applicability outside Hong Kong.

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In June, the working groups came together, learned what the others were doing, and presented a united front to modern slavery. The Mekong Club is working on launching a pledge for any company that wants to commit to zero tolerance of human trafficking. Organisations that want to sign it must demonstrate from a list of 10 things what they will do to address modern slavery. From that list, the Mekong Club plans to develop a business impact index.

“We are not going to list the individual companies’ scores, but the composite scores – in much the same way as the Dow Jones average works – so that you can track it over time,” says Friedman.

It will be released before the end of the year.

So it turns out that Hong Kong does care – or at least there are enough people who care to make a difference. While cynics say the catalyst for change is the business risk, Friedman says he’s seen plenty of genuine concern.

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“As you get over the business risk element and realise that human beings are in terrible circumstances, even the most hardened business person eventually comes to the conclusion that it would be nice if we could do something. We are trying to make it easy for corporations to demonstrate their goodwill, their commitment to making this a better world.”