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Breaking the Chains of Modern Slavery

Mekong Club CEO Matt Friedman

Matt Friedman is one of the world’s foremost experts on modern slavery, and what can be done to stop it. As the founder and CEO of The Mekong Club, a non-profit dedicated to advancing sustainable solutions to eliminate modern slavery in the private sector, Matt has spent the last 35 years advising companies on how they can eliminate slavery from their own supply chains, and had keen insight on why, despite his efforts, modern slavery is growing rapidly.

What changed you from being a regular person to being an activist when it came to modern slavery?

Many years ago, I was a public health officer in Nepal. I was seeing a lot of 12- and 13-year-olds who were HIV-positive and couldn’t understand what was going on, so I started to go and interview them, and heard the stories about how a trafficker would come into their community, find a 12 year old girl, marry her, and say he’s going to take her to Kathmandu. But instead, he’d take her to Mumbai, India, to the brothels. When they arrive he would put her in a room and say, honey, stay here. I’ll be back in a few minutes. He then went off to the madam to get the $500 for having sold her to the brothel. He has the gold from the wedding, and he hands the wedding pictures over. He then leaves to go back to do this again 40 or 50 times a year. The Madam then goes into the room and says to the girl, guess what? Your husband just sold you to me, and you’re going to be with 20 or 30 guys a day every day because I say so.

After a couple of years, some of these girls get diseases and go back to Nepal, and we were getting their stories. But I didn’t understand the evil of it until I went to those brothels at the invitation of the Indian Government to do public health check. I had a police officer with me. We went into one brothel and there was an 11 year old trafficking victim who ran up to me and said, “Save me, they’re doing terrible things to me.” I told the police officer we needed to get this girl out of there, but the officer said if we tried to leave with her, we would all be killed. We left without her and came back with more police, but of course by then, the girl was gone.

Every once in a while in life, we are faced with a test. That was my big test, and I failed miserably. But once I knew about this, I couldn’t turn my back on it. For a long time, I interviewed people who were involved in modern slavery almost daily. I had to learn how to put aside my feelings when I heard their stories because otherwise, I would internalize their pain and suffering and burn out. And I couldn’t afford to do that because actually being there for that person is the priority. It’s not about me. It’s about them.

How did you come to launch the Mekong Club, and why is its mission so important today?

I’ve been addressing modern slavery for about 35 years. As part of my career, I ended up in Thailand working for the United Nations. I was basically managing offices in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, and during the time that I was there, the numbers related to how many people were associated with human trafficking were better. At the time, we knew there were 21 million enslaved people, and that the world was helping about 34,000 of them That’s not even half a percent of the victims. When our office accepted the reality of that, we went back to the numbers. Out of that 21 million, 75 percent was forced labor, and 60 percent of that was associated with supply chains. That’s how we realized we needed to talk to the private sector.

As I spoke with captains of industry to get their perspective on this, I learned that they didn’t know much about this issue, they recognized it was a business risk, and what they needed was an organization in Hong Kong to help them understand and address the issue of modern slavery. That’s how we set up the Mekong Club, which is a business association with members from banking, manufacturing, retail, and hospitality to discuss and identify what that community needs to do in order to address modern slavery.

Tell us about your book, Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slavery.

My wife and I recently finished a 53-day presentation tour across North America. We did 91 events, spoke to more than 12,500 people, and what we learned was that people have a superficial understanding of this topic. They think of human trafficking and modern slavery as sex trafficking, and they don’t know much about forced labor. They think it’s something that’s far away, so I wrote Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slavery because I felt like general awareness was needed. This is our textbook on human trafficking. It explains how we got to where we are now, and what the private sector can do about it.

This particular topic is very emotional, you know. Sometimes you can overwhelm people with too much information on sex trafficking. Or you can get into the technical sides of things, and it just gets very dry and uninteresting. So I worked hard to find that balance between encouraging people to learn more, giving them the information they need, not overwhelming them with the horrors of human trafficking, and ending with a hopeful message that we as human beings can all be part of the solution.

A few years ago, the global population of modern slaves was equivalent to the population of Canada. Is that still accurate?

For a while, the number was 40 million people in modern slavery, which exceeds the population of both Canada and Australia. But the official number was revised to 50 million about 2 months ago, which exceeds the population of Spain. The reason why it went up is the economic turmoil around COVID-19. According to the World Bank, a half billion people who were out of poverty went back into poverty as a result of the pandemic. A person in Bangladesh works in a garment factory; she is supporting six or seven people. All of a sudden, her factory is closed for a long time. Soon she runs out of money and must borrow to survive. When there’s no way of paying that money back, the moneylender says, “I need a family member. They’re going to go off to a brothel or a fishing boat or a sweatshop and all of their proceeds are going to come to me.” That’s how we’re seeing a significant increase in modern slavery.

It is such an affront to humanity that this should be something that should be front-page every day, but it’s not. People just don’t want to read about this, so we struggle to figure out what we need to do to get people to say, “It’s 2023. It’s unacceptable that 25,000 people enter modern slavery every day. $150 billion is generated from modern slavery. This just has to stop.”

Part of it is that people feel like the do-gooder types like me should just go out and address it, but there’s about a half-million criminals that are trafficking humans, and maybe 30,000 people who do what I do. Criminals don’t have to follow rules and regulations, but we do. We have to get permission from our donors to do things. We can’t evolve the same way that the criminals do.

The other part of it is, we may have done a disservice years ago, when we spent so much time talking about the horrors of sex trafficking, because it just got people to the point where people don’t want to hear about it anymore. But there’s a point at which we, as human beings, have to accept some responsibility for the world, and we have to expose ourselves to the bad things in it.

What are your thoughts on the labor exploitation issues that surrounded the 2022 FIFA World Cup?

People from all parts of the world go to other countries with the hope, expectation, and dream of having a better life. In the case of Qatar and the World Cup, that’s not what happened. Many people from South Asia were told that they could have a great opportunity to make money to send back to their family. They put up money in order for the possibility to have that option only to face terrible health/safety issues and living conditions, and a lot of these migrants never made it home.

We’re talking about a part of the world that doesn’t have any non-government organizations to determine whether or not working conditions meet a standard that is acceptable for the world. As a result, many of these World Cup workers in Qatar were disenfranchised, hurt, or killed.

We’re talking about slavery, something that is so awful and evil that we have to care about this. So whether or not Qatar, or any other Middle Eastern countries, or other countries that are averse to looking at this topic, feel like it’s acceptable to do this, it isn’t.

How can organizations ensure that they and their supply chains do not contribute to modern slavery?

Most major manufacturers are responsible for submitting reports for transparency legislation. In the past, you would have, say, a running shoe company that would be auditing Tier One factories where the where the assembly of the running shoe takes place. You usually don’t find problems at that level. But they’ve never looked at Tier Two where you get the rivets in the shoelaces, and the zippers, and so forth. Or Tier 3, where the raw material comes. Why? Because they haven’t been asked to. Now, the legislation says you have to go all the way down to the lowest level, so that means that instead of doing 2,000 audits, maybe you have to do 7,000 audits, and the question is, who’s going to pay for that? Is the running shoe going to go from $100 to $200?

What we’re seeing is a consolidation where competitors are coming together and say, you do zippers, we’ll do shoelaces, somebody else does rivets, and so on. In the past, that sharing of information would have been an intellectual property thing, but now it’s not.

Your C-suite and directors must understand this issue and that you need policies and procedures that cascade down through your supply chain. You need a point person or team to ensure that comprehensive and up-to-date training is taking place. You need a risk assessment to determine if supply chain is in problematic locations which you need greater due diligence. You have to do audits that are comprehensive enough to catch things that are there. You should have grievance mechanisms in place. And if you run into a problem, remediation is an important part of the process.

If you think that going in and looking at Tier One factories is enough, it isn’t. With ESG being what it is, the expectation will be that you, as a company, have to go deeper into addressing assurances that modern slavery isn’t in your supply chain. And you have to validate and verify how you’re proving that that’s the case.

Have you ever come across a company that realized it needed to do better and really put in the work to improve its anti-slavery efforts?

I was asked to do a presentation for a large company on the issue of human trafficking and modern slavery as part of a three-day regional event. All their compliance people were there. I did the presentation on a Monday morning, first day, first hour, and they canceled everything afterwards because they recognized how vulnerable they were, and that they hadn’t really paid attention to this. They spent a lot of time identifying who needs to do what and who is responsible. They asked for our advice and guidance, and within an eight-month period of time, they were where the average manufacturing company or conglomerate was related to this particular topic, and they continued to move forward from there.

Another time, I was having a series of conversations with a family-owned manufacturing business, and they said, “With all due respect, we’ve been working with these particular factories in Bangladesh for 35 years. We don’t feel there’s a need. We know our business.” Two months later, they called and said that an investigative journalist discovered some issues with the company in Bangladesh. They wanted us to provide guidance and technical assistance, but it was too late. They lost their entire business.

There was a bank that was fined $1.3 billion AUS because they didn’t pay attention to this. A fast-fashion brand in the UK recently lost about £2 billion of business share as a result of a modern slavery accusation that didn’t even turn out to be true. Modern slavery is a very emotional term, and when you put it next to a particular company’s name, it can have a devastating impact. That’s why it’s so important to take it seriously.

How can an enterprise move the needle on this in a positive way?

Whether you’re a bank, manufacturer, retailer, hospitality, tech…make sure that your house is in order in terms of policies and risk assessments, and that you have people who focus on this so you can do what’s legally required of you. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are organizations like ours that know how to work with companies and get them to a point of compliance quickly.

Corporations donate to charities of all types, but they tend not to give to this because it’s a sensitive topic. AIDS was like that for a long time. But unfortunately, right now, we’ve gone from 40 million to 50 million modern slaves and funding to address this issue has gone down.

That said, I honestly think that the private sector is heroic, and it has been for a long time. The banks have been addressing issues related to human trafficking by looking at their transactions to see whether or not people are being exploited. That helps reduce modern slavery. Manufacturers have been auditing for years and have improved factories all over the world. They may not have done it low enough in the supply chain, but they’ll do that. The private sector has always had a part to play in this. They’ve never gotten credit for it. But manufacturers, retailers, and banks are doing work that’s really making a difference, and they should feel proud of that because they’re part of the solution.

But we are dealing with something that is such a terrible problem for so many people that we have to care about this. We have to put pressure on our governments, our law enforcement, and our businesses to say enough is enough. We have to step up. All of us.

This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Ethisphere Magazine. To download a PDF of that issue, click here.

About the Expert
Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert with more than 35 years’ experience. He is CEO of The Mekong Club, an organization of Hong Kong’s leading businesses which have joined forces to help end all forms of modern slavery. Mr. Friedman previously worked for USAID and the United Nations in over 30 countries. Mr. Friedman offers technical advice to numerous governments, banks and corporations working to eliminate all forms of modern slavery and is the author of twelve books. In 2017, Mr. Friedman won Asia’s prestigious “Communicator of the Year” Gold Award.


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