Modern day slavery is alive and well in Southeast Asia

It is estimated that there are more slaves today than at any time in human history, with the fisheries, brothels and construction sites of Southeast Asia home to some of the worst abuses. On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, Mekong Club CEO Matt Friedman highlights the fight to end the practice

Matt Friedman
July 30, 2021
Modern day slavery is alive and well in Southeast Asia
Migrant workers from Indonesia carry placards which collectively read "Slave" next to a portrait resembling a likeness of former Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih during a Labour Day rally in Hong Kong on May 1, 2014. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP

I was only 16 years old when I was forced onto that fishing boat. 

I was told that the job was easy and that I’d be paid a good wage. But instead, I ended up working 18 hours a day, every day. For food, we ate nothing but fish and rice twice a day. If I got sick or injured, I worked. I had seen others who had fallen ill, and the captain simply threw them over the side of the boat. 

I still remember their pleas for help as the ocean carried them away to their deaths. I was beaten if I didn’t work hard enough, or even if I did. Days often went by with only a few hours of sleep. 

I was so tired sometimes I felt I’d go crazy. To keep me working, they would force me to take powerful drugs that destroyed my body. When I finally returned to port after four years at sea, I was not given any pay. The captain told me that I was an illegal migrant, so he didn’t have to give me anything. Having no way to communicate with my family while I was away, my mother and father assumed I was dead. Since they moved away, I don’t know where to find them,

This story was told to me by a 21-year-old Cambodian man trafficked onto a fishing boat, representing one of the approximately 17,000 fishers, people, working the waters of Southeast Asia who are considered slaves. He was also part of the estimated 40 million people around the world who are trapped in modern slavery, according to the most recent statistics of the International Labour Organization. These victims, who can be found in factories, construction sites, within fisheries and sex venues, are forced to work for little or no pay, deprived of their freedom, and often subjected to unimaginable suffering. 

When most people think of slavery, they think of a problem that happened many years ago. I often hear people state: Slavery is a thing of the past. We don’t have any slaves anymore. This was abolished many years ago.

While it is true that organised slavery has been abolished, modern slavery continues to thrive, a fact that surprises most who hear it. I recently had someone exclaim at the scope of the problem and question why they had never even heard the term “modern slavery” before.

The reason for this confusion often comes down to semantics. For the past 35 years, we have been using the phrase “human trafficking” to describe what is now being called modern slavery. The original phrase, which represents “the recruitment, transport, receipt and harboring of people for the purpose of exploiting their labor”, was defined in November 2000 at the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in Palermo, Italy. 

According to academics, practitioners and legal professionals who were involved in coming up with this phrase, the use of the word “trafficking” resulted from many of the early cases involving people who were brought from one country to another to eventually be exploited. For this reason, the word trafficking, which implies the movement of something, was used.  

However, between 2005-12, professionals at the UN, as well as major international counter-trafficking groups and research institutions, came to realise that while there were many examples of cross-border trafficking, there were also many instances of people who were exploited in-country or even within their own city. For this reason, there was a conceptual shift to use the term slavery, which places the focus on the exploitation that these victims face. Because of the historical aspect of the term slavery, the word “modern” was added.

The UN has indicated that there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in history

So why on July 30, designated World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, should we care about this topic? I would offer two reasons.  

First, over more than a decade, the anti-human trafficking community as a collective has not come close to meeting its full potential. While individual, small-scale success stories can be found, many victims are never identified. For example, the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, created annually by the US State Department, was only able to account for approximately 100,000 victims receiving assistance globally. This means that less than 0.5% of the victims are being identified and assisted each year.  

Why are these numbers so low? According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the profits generated from this illicit trade are estimated to exceed $150 billion annually. These estimates were made up of profits generated from non-payment or underpayment of wages and the cost involved in the recruitment process, such as recruitment fees. But despite the size of the problem, annual global donor contributions add up to only around $350 million, which represents approximately 0.23% of total profits generated by the criminals.

With so few resources available to tackle the problem, it is not surprising that the number of trafficked persons continues to increase. In fact, the UN has indicated that there are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in history. This means that despite all of the organisations and individuals attempting to address this problem, we are only having limited impact. 

Second, modern slavery represents one of the most horrific human rights violations of our time. Each person who is victimised loses his or her fundamental freedom to make choices in their lives. In this day and age, this simply should not exist. And yet it does. As human beings, we need to understand the problem and take a stand.

A Cambodian policeman escorts thirty trafficked fishermen at the Phnom Penh International airport on December 12, 2011. The men were returning from Indonesia after being freed or escaping from slave-like conditions on Thai fishing vessels. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

To put these statements into perspective, I will end with a story. Many years ago, as I continued to encounter victims of trafficking, I desperately wanted to do something to help. So I decided to write a book. As part of this process, I would go from shelter to shelter in Kathmandu, Nepal, to interview young women and girls who had been forced into prostitution. I went to one shelter and met a girl called Gita. Every time I asked her for an interview, she said no. 

But while I interviewed other girls, she sat silently and listened to everything that was said. On the last day, Gita told me she had changed her mind – she would give me an interview. I was thrilled. She sat on one side of the table and a few of us sat on the other side. 

Over the next three hours, she described one of the most gut-wrenching testimonials I have ever heard. This girl had been forced to have sex with over 7,000 men. She was also inflicted with HIV/AIDS. Her story was filled with a mixture of love, life, deception, rape, torture, murder, betrayal and disease. 

At the end of the interview, I sat there speechless. I honestly didn’t know what to say. I finally said: “Wow, you must be so angry with the traffickers for all of the terrible things they did to you.” 

Instead, Gita looked accusingly at me and the others in the room and shouted: “No, I am not angry with the traffickers, I am angry with you!” pointing her finger at each of us in turn. 

“Where were you when I was in that terrible brothel? I sat there everyday waiting for someone to come and save me. I knew that everything happening around me was illegal and wrong. Where were you and everyone else when I needed you?” 

“And why are you sitting here?” she added. “Why aren’t you down there helping those other girls? Everyone knows what is going on. How can such terrible things happen without anyone doing anything? I am not angry with the traffickers. They are just bad people doing what they do – bad things. I am angry with the good people – society, you! Where were you? Why does no one care?” 

By pointing the finger at us, the twist in the story helped us to understand an important point: the citizens of the world – collectively and individually – have a responsibility to help end the suffering of those like Gita. 

Slavery represents one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time. With this thought in mind, I would argue that we, as responsible human beings must collectively take a stand. 

On every day, but on this one especially, we must all accept some responsibility and consider stepping up and doing something – raising awareness, volunteering, being a responsible consumer, fundraising for the cause. We must all join to condemn modern slavery and end it for good.

Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert with more than 35 years’ experience. He is CEO of the Mekong Club, an organisation of Hong Kong’s leading businesses which have joined forces to help end all forms of modern slavery.

Read more articles