Slavery, the darkest side of corruption

Monique Villa
CEO, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Last month I met a man whose life had been entirely shattered by corruption. He had lost everything he had: his family, his friends, his freedom. He had become a slave.

This man was lured to another country, far from home, with the promise of a good-paying job as an office clerk. To make the trip and to pay the intermediary, he took a loan. Upon his arrival, instead of being handed an office badge, he was forced to hand over his passport, and was dragged into the world of modern-day slavery.

The job he had been promised never existed. He was suddenly in debt, far away from home and unable to leave. He had no option but to start working as a construction worker to repay the loan he had taken.

The working conditions were inhumane. For a minuscule pay, he would work more than 15 hours a day under the excruciating sun. His meals were dog’s food, he had limited access to drinking water, he slept and lived in appalling conditions.

After two-and-a-half years in slavery, this man managed to leave the open prison he was kept in, but with debt still on his shoulders he would spend all his salary to pay the man who got him enslaved. His ordeal only ended when he met an extraordinary woman who wrote off his loan and helped him starting a new life in his home country. This man was very lucky. There are thousands of stories out there without a happy ending.

Human trafficking is one of the many faces of corruption, that evil intention to profit at the expenses of another human being. Most of us have probably met a slave in our life, without knowing it.

In this day and age, slavery takes many forms: forced and bonded labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced marriage, just to name a few. There are currently 29.6 million slaves around the world, more than ever in history and roughly equivalent to the population of Australia and Denmark combined. It is a fast-growing industry worth US$ 32 billion a year.

World leaders and CEOs have a key role to play in the fight against human trafficking. It is good that the World Economic Forum strengthens its Partnering Against Corruption Initiative. Human trafficking would not exist without corruption.

Most CEOs we have discussed with are genuinely committed to eradicate modern-day slavery, but admit it’s a difficult job. It’s one that entails monitoring and grilling their sub-contractors, and scrutinizing their supply chains. It’s an effort that takes time and money. And today, in most cases, such level of accountability is simply not in place. The consequences are dire, and last year’s disaster at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh has demonstrated the full impact of such negligence on brand reputation.

On the other hand, in the past few months, I have also noted some very interesting developments, with some of the key players of the anti-slavery initiative moving into the corporate space, opening their own firms and using their knowledge and experience to advise big businesses on how to clean their supply chains and to boost transparency and accountability. It’s a real business opportunity, for both parties.

There are other green shoots of hope. Governments are now beginning to take bolder action to make businesses accountable, fining the hiring firms for violations of national employment laws committed by their subcontractors. In addition, an increasing amount of governments worldwide are now determined to end the culture of impunity for the traffickers and the offenders, whoever they are. It is the right move. Slavery should always trump all diplomatic immunities, and should be fought on an international basis by all parties who can contribute to successful prosecutions.

All of us as consumers also have the duty to demand to know more about the origin of the products we buy. We must not turn a blind eye.

The financial industry has also a significant role to play. The Thomson Reuters Foundation and the office of the Manhattan District Attorney in New York have recently issued international guidance aimed at helping the financial industry to identify and report irregularities in transactions that might be linked to human trafficking activity. The document is the product of a unique collaboration with some of the world’s leading financial institutions including: American

Express, Bank of America, Barclays, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co., TD Bank, Wells Fargo and Western Union. These corporations have committed to share data linked to suspicious or irregular financial behaviour that might ultimately be linked to human trafficking with law enforcement agencies. This is a massive step forward, and one that we intend to replicate in Europe and Asia.

The fight against corruption and the battle against human trafficking go hand in hand. Human trafficking would not exist without corruption, and world leaders and CEOs have a key role to play in the fight against human trafficking. It is good that the World Economic Forum is strengthening its Partnering Against Corruption Initiative because slavery would not exist without corruption. It is important that slavery becomes part of that conversation as is already the case with the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Illicit Trade.

The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum is a perfect opportunity to discuss uncomfortable issues. We could and should commit to work together to finally confine this hideous crime to the history books.

Monique Villa is Chief Executive Officer of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. She is participating in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

Image: A victim of human trafficking from Iraq at a shelter for women and children in Abu Dhabi. REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh

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