Together against Modern-Day Slavery: A Conversation with Matt Friedman

A Conversation with Matt Friedman //

Can you give us a breakdown of modern slavery? What are the main types of slavery today and the general demographics of people being enslaved?

Matt: The latest figure is 45.8 million people in modern slavery. About 66%, or about 30 million of them are in Asia. About 75% of them are in forced labor—and this includes fishing, manufacturing, people who are kind of forced into sweatshops and agriculture sites, domestic helpers that are abused. 25% of the remainders are in forced prostitution, that includes mostly women and girls. For the most part the profits generated from modern slavery are estimated to be 150 billion U.S. dollars a year. The amount of money that is used to fight this is about 350 million U.S. dollars, or 0.23 % of the profits of the 150 billion. The number of people who are helped globally a year are around 60-70,000, which means that the world is only helping about 0.2% of the trafficking victims each year, which means we’re not even helping 1%. There are more slaves today than at any other time in history, in fact there are 25,200 slaves entering into slavery every day, or a new slave every 4 seconds.

Have you seen a trend changing over these 25 years that you’ve been working on this, or has it been pretty much constant in having such a low rate of investment and of people freed from slavery?

Matt: Well, the low rates have always been in place.  Part of the problem is that modern slavery, or human trafficking, are hidden, so it’s difficult to know where it’s taking place unless you know what you’re looking for.  Having said that, you’re also dealing with a business that has a tremendous amount of money, so the possibility of corruption, either in political systems or in private sectors, or among the police is very high.  And the other thing is that while the numbers have probably not been going up or down, they’ve probably always been high, the different ways in which people are being recruited to human trafficking are changing.  For example, in the past it was usually through recruitment agencies, but now the internet is a very important tool to entice and attract people into modern slavery, because you can access through chat room, or through email, or through offers that seem too good to be true, but to a migrant who is quite desperate they often take advantage of these offers because they so want them to be real.

What I hear you saying is that recruitment strategies are changing. In light of this, how can you get involved in combating this, and how has your involvement changed over the years as well?

Matt: Initially when I started 30 years ago, we focused almost exclusively on forced prostitution.  And the reason for that is the entry point for human trafficking was prostitution, and it’s only because there was HIV/AIDS that we knew anything about it. People like me who were public health officers would go into brothels and train the girls how to use condoms in how to protect their health, but afterwards we would then say to them, “Okay, what’s your story, how did you get here?”  And we started to hear these horrific stories about how they were tricked, deceived into basically forced prostitution.  Because of the moral repugnance of a woman or girl being forced to have sex against her will, there’s always been this strong emphasis on forced prostitution, but the definition has always included forced labor.  And so for much of my career I’ve focused on forced prostitution because that’s where people felt the emphasis should be.

But around 12 years ago, when I was working for the United Nations, we then shifted to include forced labor in the equation, and so we started looking more at forced labor that we found in sweatshops, in brick kilns, among men who were seafood-packing, and so forth.  But most of that initial activity with both forced prostitution and forced labor was still with the United Nations with the NGOs, with the government partners.  In the last 6 years we’ve switched from working exclusively with those groups to include the private sector in the mix.  And the reason why we do this is that out of the 45.8 million people in slavery, 75% of them, as I mentioned, are in forced labor, and associated with that number are 60% of people who are associated with supply chains.  Now supply chains are where our shoes, and our clothes, and our electronics, and the goods that we buy come from. If basically forced labor is associated with the private sector, the private sector needs to be involved.

When it comes to the private sector the banks need to be involved because the profits generated from modern slavery, if they go into a legitimate bank, become money laundering and the banks can be penalized.  When it comes to manufacturers, if somewhere in your supply chains you have a factory that is making an object or a component that is associated with slavery and somebody finds out about it, they can be seriously named and shamed and this could hurt their products.  When it comes to the hotel industry, they need to be concerned about forced prostitution, about the fact that they buy shellfish from locations where there might be slavery, third party contractors that do cleaning services, construction… all of these things are relevant to the private sector and to the hospitality sector, in this particular case. If we can, understanding that, with all the support we’ve had from the NGOs, and the UN and the governments, we’re only reaching 0.2% of the victims, we recognize the importance of opening up a new front to get the private sector to be a part of helping to address this.  We feel like this will really help to increase the number of people helped.

Can you tell me more about how the Mekong Club is actually engaging in this anti-slavery, anti-forced labor movement that is happening?

Matt: Sure. We basically are an association, which means that organizations become members. We have four categories that we work on: banking and finance, footwear and apparel, retail, and hospitality. Our members come together four times a year, and when they get together they sit together as a group and identify what are the needs and gaps within their specific industry The banks, for example, are interested in training, and they’re interested in identifying risk-assessment tools to identify where there is risk for banking. The footwear and apparel organizations are very interested also in risk, so they’re looking for a tool that takes audit information and helps them to identify which countries, and which territories within countries, might be vulnerable to using slave-labor if you were to set up and work with a factory. The retail organizations are very interested in e-learning; you know, how they can basically get short films in multiple languages that can help to inform the people that they’re getting supplies from to ensure that they understand the vulnerability of forced labor. The idea is to incentivize the private sector to step up and be a part of the response. Now in the past, the private sector didn’t want to talk about this issue because it was too sensitive for them. They were often on the receiving end of people pointing a finger and saying “You’re the problem,” and there was a lot of naming and shaming that would take place where NGOs would say “Here’s a bad company, don’t buy from them because they’re doing bad things.” Part of the reason why the private sector is now stepping up and they’re forced to get involved is number one, there’s new legislation around the world that insists that the private sector identify and make transparent what they’re doing to address modern slavery.

Second, there are lawsuits against major companies that are being put forth that create a publicity business risk.  There’s a lot of media coverage that talks about the involvement of the private sector in modern slavery, and lastly there are NGOs that do naming and shaming campaigns. There’s a business risk associated with this, so as a result of that corporations are looking for help, and the Mekong Club offers that help.  But we do it in a way where we never name and shame, it’s all done confidentially, and we work with them in a very supportive way.  This allows us to develop a sense of trust, and then to use that sense of trust to help them as a community to address the problems that they might face.

If an organizations want to join the Mekong Club, how can that happen? 

Matt: All they have to do is contact us, and we’ll meet with them and sign them up.  There’s a $5,000 U.S. dollar fee, and the reason why we do that is it helps us to cover our costs, but at the same time it demonstrates that they are in fact committed to doing this work.  Our approach isn’t to sign up dozens and dozens and dozens of companies—we’re more interested in finding the companies that really have an interest in making a difference.  As a result of that, we say to companies that want to join us, “We really need you to roll up your sleeves and be an active part of helping us to address the problem.”

Is it mostly Hong Kong based, or from around the globe?

Matt: We have members that come from different countries, but the meetings actually take place here in Hong Kong, so most of the groups that we work with have offices here in Hong Kong.

Thank you.  And the last question is what can we do? As people who are engaging in our jobs and things that happen, do you think there are any specific resources for education and involvement that you recommend, maybe not necessarily to the companies themselves, but for people on the streets?

Matt: Often when I do a presentation I say to the audience, “If everyone were to do just one thing, and one thing only, and we had 10 million people doing one thing, that would add up to a lot.” The types of things people can do are, number one, they can learn about the issue, they can then share that information with other people, they can teach their kids about the issue and the problem.  When they’re going to go online to buy something that is name-brand, they can go and see whether or not the company that they are buying from has a policy related to modern slavery, and if they do, they can congratulate that company.  If they don’t, they can simply state in a very polite way, “You know, I like your product, and I’ll probably continue buying them, but I’d feel more comfortable if I knew you cared about this type of issue.”  You can volunteer—we use a lot of volunteers to basically help us do the work that we have, and there are other NGOs that are always looking for volunteers as well.  People can fundraise and give proceeds to the NGOs and also give donations to the NGOs or the organizations that are doing this. Lastly, you know, if companies or if people want to encourage a presentation to take place, the Mekong Club offers presentations free of charge. We do it as a public service, and this helps us to educate and inform the private sector partners or individuals or employees within a company what they need to know in order to address the issue.


Matt Friedman is an internationally recognized anti-slavery expert, activist, and speaker. Over the past 20 years Matt has worked extensively with both USAID and the United Nations to combat human trafficking and forced labor in Southeast Asia. Currently, Matt serves as CEO of the Mekong Club, which works to help large corporations eliminate slave labor and meet high ethical standards throughout their supply chains.



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