Slavery: a modern trade

Slavery is a global, criminal industry generating $150bn a year. Philanthropy Age takes a closer look at the individuals and agencies battling to see it abolished

Basanti was 16 when she was sold into slavery. Returning from the fields where she and her mother worked, two men she knew approached her on a motorcycle. At gunpoint, they threatened both women, forcing Basanti to go with them. It was the second time she’d been kidnapped.

“They took me to the local police station, where the investigating officer of my case had arranged a car for these people to traffic me to some other place,” she says, through a translator. “Then they took me to Mumbai by train, where I was kept in confinement and raped. Finally, they sold me to someone for Rs40,0000 [about $642].”

Basanti had been trafficked into the sex trade, joining the estimated 14.3 million people enslaved in India alone. Deprived of their liberty through violence, threats and coercion, victims are exploited for the income they can generate for criminal gangs of slavers.

Globally, the industry is vast. Some 35.8 million people are trapped in slavery worldwide, according to an index compiled by the Australian-based Walk Free Foundation. From entire villages of brick makers in northern India, to the forced cotton pickers of Uzbekistan, collectively they earn their handlers $150bn a year in illicit income.

More than two-thirds of the world’s slaves live in just 10 countries. India is the worst offender in absolute numbers, while Mauritania, where slave status is inherited, has the greatest level of slavery per capita. An estimated 4 per cent of the country’s population remains held under the control of traditional masters, with no freedom to own land or to inherit anything from their own families.

While some forms of slavery, such as sex trafficking, are relatively obvious; others are more opaque. From forced or bonded labour, where people are trapped in work by debts against their job, to the sale of a young girl into marriage to settle a loan; slavery comes in many shades.

Basanti’s ordeal was, through luck, wit and opportunity, short-lived. She escaped her traffickers and fled to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh by train on 20th August 2013. With one trafficker in pursuit, she managed to call her father from a phone booth at the railway station.

“In the whole journey the train and the railway station seemed the only security and the trafficker kept looking for an opportunity [to take me],” she says. “My father called up Guria Sansthan, which rescued me from the station.”

Guria Sansthan is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) fighting against human trafficking and forced prostitution in Varanasi. Headed by Ajeet Singh, the organisation has helped more than 200 women like Basanti escape from similar circumstances.

“They handed me over to the railway police and called my parents, who took over my custody, with the help of Guria,” Basanti explains. “We were then escorted by Guria staff and hidden, since I desperately needed witness protection and could not go back home.”

Safe from her captors, Basanti and her family were guided through the legal complaint process. Basanti received counselling and then, finally, financial support to help her rebuild her life.

For Singh, it is a familiar story. His volunteer team has devoted years of hard work – and made some mistakes – battling slavery on the streets of Varanasi. “I started with education in the red light area,” explains Singh, who initially targeted the children of prostitutes, in an effort to break the vicious cycle of victimisation. After three or four years, he knew something was going wrong. “All I was doing was making educated prostitutes,” he explains. “By 12 or 13 they were being pulled into the sex trade.”

“Education was a tool, not a goal. It acts as a catalyst” Singh realised that it would take more than education to make a difference. Tackling individual issues, such as health care or contraception, wasn’t the solution either, as Singh saw the issue was deeper-rooted than that.

“The core of the problem is basically slavery,” he says. “You have to fight the criminal nexus: the traffickers, the brothel keepers, the pimps and the police; it’s all a big racket.

“It was very difficult as an NGO, because social workers had to face organised crime and criminals. That is what we realised. There is no short cut. You have to take a head-on collision with them.”

This approach has propelled Singh into a nearly 15-year battle against social stigma, organised crime, poverty and corruption; all essential ingredients in the slavery trade that spans the globe. His armoury includes education programmes, lessons about healthcare and disease, emotional support and counselling.

“Education was a tool, not a goal,” Singh explains. “It acts as a catalyst. That’s what we do; use education, health, everything, as a tool for a change.”

With time, this shift has come. Guria’s work contributed to the creation of a child prostitution-free red light district in Varanasi, something Singh says is a first for the country. Guria has also rescued almost 500 women and girls from brothels, with some 206 going into the organisation’s own witness protection programme. A further 80 have been given a new start in life, with a grant of Rs25,000 [$404] to assist with livelihood support.

Singh’s successes attracted the attention of the Freedom Fund, a young private donor fund with the ambitious goal of ending modern slavery. Set up in 2013, the organisation is looking to gather $100m in investment funds, from donors, by 2020. Backed by Humanity United, Legatum and the Walk Free Foundation – which collectively pledged $30m in investment over 10 years – the fund aims to apply strategic focus and financial resources to areas where it can have the most impact.

“We were one of the initial donors in the space,” explains Ed Marcum, vice president, investments, for Humanity United. “There was a low level of awareness when we first started working on the issue, as well as a dearth of supporting donors. There were too few people funding what is a major egregious human rights abuse.”

The fund aims to create a platform to unite the myriad of actors in the anti-slavery field. Its founders believe that channelling resources and adding strategic investment will be the most effective way to identify anti-slavery intervention, which can be scaled up and then replicated.

“The idea is to focus on driving change on the front lines of slavery,” says Nick Grono, president and CEO of the Freedom Fund. “There’s lots of good work being done on the ground in places like India and elsewhere, but a lot of it is not coordinated and knowledge gained is not shared.”

“We are all touched by slavery. If you buy a $4 t-shirt there is almost certainly an element of slavery in the supply chain somewhere” Like Singh, the fund is also tackling the problem head on; using what it calls hotspot projects to target areas with a high concentration of slavery. The first was established in global slavery’s ground zero: India’s northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. There, the Freedom Fund has invested $4.45m in 17 community-based organisations whose work shows strong potential to cut slavery. Already 2,500 people have been rescued from slavery and reintegrated into normal life. Over time, the initiatives are expected to benefit up to 300,000. Lessons learned in India will be used as far afield as Ethiopia, to battle abuse of migrant domestic workers, or in Thailand, where forced labour in the fishing industry has already made global headlines.

The Freedom Fund is driven by an investor focus, something Grono sees as unusual in philanthropy. The fund also plans to publish its findings as programmes progress. Key to this will be a frank assessment of whether or not a particular programme has achieved its goals.

“We have investors as our founders,” Grono says. “They want to bring a very strong investor approach, which means measuring what works, how much it costs, and being rigorous about identifying what’s successful and what isn’t.”

It’s good to identify your failures, because that improves the allocation of your resources, he says. “We are prepared to take risks, because you have to be. You are working in some of the most difficult social change environments in the world.”

The Freedom Fund team are very deliberately not taking on the whole world, something Grono fears NGOs do too often, trying to do too much, too quickly. Still, scaling up will be essential if the fund is to make a dent in a pervasive global problem.

“We are all touched by slavery,” says Grono. “If you buy a $4 t-shirt there is almost certainly an element of slavery, or compulsion, in the supply chain somewhere, because you just can’t buy it for that price without exploitation. That’s just the way it is.”

If the work to truly abolish slavery has the potential to seem overwhelming, there is a flip side. Grono suggests that there’s probably a smaller percentage of the world’s population enslaved than ever before, and that the law is always on the side of freedom.

“It is illegal everywhere; there’s no arguing,” he says. “We’re confident that over a decade we can have a big impact on slavery. In the human rights field, you don’t always get to say that.”

Trafficking in transit

On the India-Nepal border, a huge boundary that is open for Indians and Nepalis to cross without restriction, trafficking operates under the shadow of migration.

Citizens of Nepal cross with the intention of heading to new, more prosperous lives, in cities around India. They do so to improve their lot and help their families, but too often their reason for travelling is built on a false promise.

“They receive offers of jobs and wages and hope they can give money to their family, but actually they don’t know what they are going to do,” explains Rakesh Nair, general secretary of the anti-trafficking charity Manav Seva Sansthan (SEVA). “This is how they end up in forced labour, or a brothel. It’s not being aware of what they are going to be doing.”

SEVA works on the frontline of the human trafficking issue, targeting the trade in transit across the India-Nepal border. Based in ‘lifeguard’ centres along the border, SEVA volunteers – recruited from nearby Nepali villages – reach out to migrants as they transit through the region and identify potential victims.

“We talk to them about human trafficking and what happens when people are trafficked,” says Nair. “If we find a girl is alone and going to India, we talk to her, we explain, and suddenly she might realise that she is in a bad position.”

Volunteers seek out migrants during the two-to-three hour window of waiting time, before they get the next bus or train to a city, offering information and help. SEVA has also helped to establish a regional cross-border anti-trafficking network, connecting with other organisations working in the same field.

“There were many organisations working individually before,” says Nair. “We wanted to have a collective approach so we can help each other in addressing the issue.”

Photo credit: Atul Loke/Legatum Limited 2015