Slavery thrives in the gaps between our knowledge
The power to end exploitation is already in our hands, Liberty Asia's Duncan Jepson says. What holds us back is the lack of basic data needed to make the right decisions
The much quoted line by the great abolitionist William Wilberforce that “you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know” now applies as much to the anti-slavery movement itself as to the global society they want to activate.
Wilberforce needed his society to understand clearly and profoundly that profiting from the forced labor of people was wrong. In our vastly more regulated, structured and complex world of the 21st century, there are many, many people who in their everyday work exert influence over decisions and mechanisms — whether big or small — in business, administration, regulation, policy and enforcement. The challenge facing us today is how to give these people the specific information and data they need so that they can change their minds, change their behavior and so contribute to the fight.
Curated posts on social media target private individuals. Databases of criminals are made available to businesses. Actionable intelligence is shared with law enforcement groups. These and other methods are already being used by anti-slavery groups to influence consumers, trigger regulatory obligations and change decision making in favor of bringing an end to exploitation.
It is also true that the internet of things, meta data and self-learning machines all hint at fantastic potential fixes for the future. But right now, they are very far from locating a child in a brothel, or a teenager on a fishing boat, or hundreds of people in cages and for sale. The information miracle is yet to reliably identify money circulating through the financial system that has come from a trafficker, or to prevent unwitting investors from funding a factory using forced labor. It cannot yet find the corrupt law enforcement or border official, or highly trained ex-military personnel providing security for criminal activities.
Slavery is a crime of crimes. To profit from exploiting a person will likely require many crimes to be committed. A victim must be deceived, their documents may be stolen or unlawfully retained. They may be falsely imprisoned, or forcibly transported. Beaten. Raped. Even murdered.
A substantial part of the fight is now focused on discovering exactly who is doing what to whom. In the private sector, government agencies, criminal networks and broader society, discovering just who is benefiting. Then working out how best to apply that information to the wide spectrum of stakeholders in our society and economy — that includes almost all of us.
Against us are those who take advantage of the limitations of the information-technology age, of the large and dark spaces that still exist around the world to hide the heinous acts that must be committed to enslave someone.
Slavery is a crime of crimes. To profit from exploiting a person will likely require many crimes to be committed. A victim must be deceived, their documents may be stolen or unlawfully retained. They may be falsely imprisoned, or forcibly transported. Beaten. Raped. Even murdered. To profit may require bribing people to provide security or to look the other way, to grant licenses to build factories and access land, sea and air routes. Finally, successful enslavement needs the movement of money, the abuse of investment and loans to build places of exploitation, and the transfer of cash for the sale of products and services. And of course, movement of profits.
These activities happen within society, within the very systems and infrastructure of the global economy. To do all this requires big operations. The management and coordination of chains of entities, people and resources spread across the world. Yet they are hidden in plain sight, often by nothing more than subtle and thoughtful misdirection.
The mass graves in Malaysia of Rohingya trafficked from Myanmar, the issues in the global fishing industry or the child refugees trafficked from the Calais Jungle demonstrate the large complex criminal networks needed to move, control and exploit. Beyond these, there is also the relationships of businesses and banks involved in moving product and money.
The task for the anti-slavery movement is daunting. It is hard to even comprehend the extent of slavery’s penetration through society, let alone formulate strategies to combat it, without possessing an almost omniscient knowledge of the world’s workings. Added to the practitioner’s traditional core expertise in migration, law enforcement, international, regional and local legal frameworks, policy creation, victim care and civil-society management, must now be added extensive understanding of the industries touched by exploitation — including those that enable or service the exploiters. Fishing, manufacturing and mining, technology and telecommunications, investment and transportation. It is a formidable reading list.
In the last century, when so many fundamental human rights advances were achieved, the anti-slavery movement was correct to pursue an approach that was centered on the victim. Addressing the individual’s suffering was the priority. Trying to alter the environment in which exploitation thrives was less attended.
This situation was keenly expressed in an exchange between Bill Gates and his fellow billionaire philanthropist, anti-slavery leader Andrew Forrest. The Microsoft founder gave Forrest some simple advice on how to end modern slavery: find a metric to quantify it. Forrest noted in response: “Global modern slavery is hard to measure and Bill’s a measure kind of guy.”
Forrest continued in an interview with Bloomberg: “Management speak — If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.”
As Niels Bohr, a founding father of quantum theory, is reported to have said when presented with a purely mathematical argument, “No, no, you are not thinking, you are just being logical.” Measurement is crucial, but what is to be measured in anti-slavery work? In some areas, is there even anything that can be measured?
Information as basic as the number of victims is still unknown. Two widely cited and wildly divergent estimates are provided by the International Labour Organisation (21 million) and Forrest’s Walk Free Foundation (45.8 million). Knowledge of supply chains is very limited and, unsurprisingly, the companies involved tend to keep what is known to themselves. And although there are platforms for big businesses to share information, these are beyond the reach of civil society and law enforcement.
At present a major hurdle to fighting exploitation is that participation in and benefiting from a crime like slavery as the product manufacturer or distributor is not a crime in itself. Shoes made by a child who has been forced to work can be bought and sold until they sit comfortably on the feet of another child thousands of miles away without anyone in the chain being held accountable under the law. A few companies like Patagonia make it their business to hold themselves accountable but they are the exceptions. If much wider change is to come, then benefitting from a crime should be a crime and there should be consequences.
This is the case, though, for those who handle the money from slavery. Transacting money from a crime is money laundering, and as described slavery involves a lot of crimes. The banking, finance and investment industry, which forms the hub around which all other industries revolve, is therefore a crucial part of the fight against slavery. Global banks have recently started to take this seriously, but that accounts for maybe 10 or 20 out of about 20,000 banks worldwide. In reality, it is also the local and regional banks that are more primarily involved as they serve the local businesses where the exploitation occurs.
A huge amount of work remains to be done to capture and share information and data about exploitation. But even when it is available, it is difficult to communicate to those who need it. Banks, investment funds and other financial firms are supported by a vast service industry that supplies information, due diligence and risk control. But then they can afford it. Low margin, high volume businesses, particularly those selling perishable goods, often lack spare funds to pay for such products and services. No vast information industry has grown up around these businesses and so there are also far fewer channels through which they can receive information. The fishing industry doesn’t have the profitability to enjoy the support and services of the risk and information tools that banks can access.
If information about slavery in fishing needs to get to the fishing industry and there is no current means of getting it there, isn’t it the function of civil society to do what the private sector does not? As Adam Smith recognized, and we learned again in 2008, the market does eventually have a limited interest in the health of society.
It is perhaps hard to believe that in today’s world technology has yet to bring slavery to an end, or that legal frameworks often hinder rather than aid progress — defamation, for example, can be used as a weapon, as we saw in the September conviction by Thai courts of labor activist Andy Hall. Hard to credit also is the idea that anti-corruption efforts are still in their infancy, or that out of the billions and billions of transactions every day, finding those linked to slavery is unlikely, or that we simply don’t know how many slaves there are in the world.
Wilberforce’s words are now a reminder to all of us that there is much that we all still need to know.
In truth, we are very far away from knowing enough about exploitation on the ground in order to shrink the world to the point that it becomes impossible to take from someone who probably already has nothing their only birthright: freedom.
We have made steady progress over the past few years, and the course ahead does seem much clearer. We know increasingly more about the work that needs to be done and that is reason to be optimistic. But in the unpredictable, interconnected and complex 21st century, where ending slavery involves understanding such previously disparate subjects as victim care, policy, migration, banking, law enforcement, technology, corruption and transport, perhaps Wilberforce’s words are now a reminder to all of us that there is much that we all still need to know.