The first ‘Me Too’ movement and the journey to justice for survivors of sex trafficking

Author Sylvia Yu Friedman shares her experiences and the inspirations behind her latest book, 'A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia'

Written By:
March 11, 2022
The first ‘Me Too’ movement and the journey to justice for survivors of sex trafficking
Sylvia Yu Friedman teaching on comfort women at a conference in Hong Kong in 2016. Photo: supplied

How has the pandemic and the economic disruption of many of Southeast Asia’s low-income communities suffered during Covid-19 catalysed the rise in human trafficking and modern slavery?
The pandemic has changed everything. As a result of the global economic disruptions, the World Bank estimates that up to 500 million people might slip back into poverty. 

Many countries have implemented extreme quarantine measures that have directly or indirectly led to factory shutdowns, order cancellations, workforce reductions and sudden changes to supply chain structures. Workers have lost their jobs or have been furloughed for an extended period of time. As a direct result of this unfolding situation, the risk of modern slavery has skyrocketed globally.

For instance, Asian garment workers supplying global fashion brands lost up to $5.8 billion in wages between March and May 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic led to store closures and cancelled orders from the West. Many unemployed workers were forced to turn to exploitative jobs, and some even made their children take up work in order to survive. ’

According to a study that came out in September 2020 by the analytics company Verisk Maplecroft, falling jobs and orders will affect up to 60 million people who work in Asia’s garment industry alone. This is just one sector. 

Human traffickers prey on those who are economically vulnerable. Without a paycheck, and no personal savings, the possibility that an unemployed worker will find themselves bearing excessive debt sharply increases. This debt might come from local money lenders, community institutions or family members. In taking on debts that they cannot repay, workers leave themselves open to exploitation by these various parties.

The situation is generally worse for migrant workers because many of them already have debts incurred as part of the recruitment process. 

As this situation continues to unfold, more and more women and girls are also being forced into prostitution to earn money for food and to cover the bills. One woman in this predicament said, “I had no choice. I had to begin selling myself. It was either this or we wouldn’t eat. I would have done anything else if I could have. But there is no work. Nothing.”

To bring about a change, we must first do everything we can to understand the true situation on the ground among vulnerable communities. Armed with this information, we must find ways to help get these people back to work. This might require job training and job placement programmes.

You mention in your book the importance of the private sector’s role in the fight against modern slavery. How do you think private sector companies can step up and take action in addressing the issues of human trafficking?
Modern slavery and human trafficking are an ever-increasing business risk. Governments and regulators around the world are clamping down and companies need to show they have done everything in their power to reduce modern slavery in their operations or face condemnation, fines, loss of access to government contracts and/or prosecution.

From 2012, a new transparency legislation has been put in place, which requires major companies to share publicly what they are doing to address modern slavery. This includes the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act, the UK Modern Slavery Act, France’s Duty of Vigilance and the Australian Modern Slavery Act.

Around the world there has been a significant rise in the number of class action lawsuits against major retail and manufacturing companies within the fishing, chocolate, electronics, and garment industries. 

Modern slavery is also now on the radar of the media and NGOs. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a sharp rise in investigative journalism and data collection to highlight and expose modern slavery in many industries. Campaigns to raise awareness and encourage boycotts have been launched to encourage consumers to write to those companies that have been linked with modern slavery.

The private sector can begin to rid their supply chains of slavery by looking closely at their business to determine if there are any risk factors. For example, within manufacturing supply chains, factories sometimes restrict workers’ movement, hold their official documentation to prevent them from leaving, force workers to do overtime without pay or hold them in place with fraudulent debt bondage. Companies can conduct investigative audits that illuminate the real conditions faced by workers. They can also offer training to staff and suppliers, as well as put in place systems that reduce the chances of collaborating with companies that exploit people in modern slavery.

How can public and private sector work together to tackle these issues?
After working with traditional nonprofits, I’ve come to conclude that it’s working with corporations and banks that make a huge impact – influence the influencers – and that’s the work that my husband, Matt Friedman, is doing at the Mekong Club at a fraction of the cost of global nonprofits.

Breakthroughs in prevention, prosecution and protection of victims of trafficking can originate from the use of technology and the expertise available in the field of communication. The private sector has these technologies and there are executives willing and able to help. In the past, there was often a ‘firewall’ between the public and private sector when it came to these opportunities. But this can be changed with more public-private sector collaboration. Efficiency and impact can be multiplied by exploring a collaborative spirit between these two diverse groups.

The International Monetary Fund has claimed that human trafficking is one of the world’s most lucrative crimes, with an estimated revenue generation of more than $150 billion annually. What can be done to deter the players in this industry and the commercial attraction it provides?
With an estimated $150 billion generated from this illicit crime annually, banks must ensure that none of this illegal money makes it into their business.  If it does, and regulators find out about this, the bank can be fined for money laundering.  

Many banks across Asia are stepping up their efforts to track this crime. This includes training their employees, breaking down crimes into component parts to identify potential links with banking procedures (typologies), using ‘red-flag indicators’ to search their data to find nefarious activities and, if found, sending this information to financial regulators.  

Out of the 40 million people in modern slavery, the collective counter slavery community helped rescue about 100,000 victims from this terrible crime last year.  This means that with all of the NGOs, governments and UN organisations combined, only 0.2% of the victims were assisted. With Asian banks stepping up and getting involved in the investigations, this could have a significant impact on the number of people helped.

Why do you think it is important to share the views of the ‘perpetrators’ of the sex trafficking industry (e.g. the mama-sans and the Japanese former soldiers whom you interviewed?)
In the global fight against modern slavery, very few perpetrators and mama-sans have willingly left the flesh trade and been supported by trained frontline professionals and rehabilitated. So many of these perpetrators are victims of exploitation themselves. It’s a missed opportunity to not be targeting them and offering alternative employment options. Human traffickers or the perpetrators must be reached and helped in addition to the victims. 

What changes can be made to police training to help improve this process? Do you think police failings have contributed to the rise of sex trafficking in Southeast Asia?
For decades, the police have been part of the problem related to addressing sex trafficking.  Raids took place, but not to save victims. They were done to arrest women and girls who were in prostitution, which in many countries is considered illegal.  The idea of women being victims was not accepted as a potential outcome. They were, instead, treated as criminals.   Many of them ended up in jails and remand centres. 

While this situation has changed over the past 20 years, many police still do not have proper training to identify and address the needs of victims. Because of trust issues, specially trained officers are needed. They should also be women. The best way to understand if a person is a trafficking victim is to take them to a place that offers privacy, comfort and sufficient time to develop a sense of trust.  This is often lacking in many police stations.

You’ve spoken about “history repeating itself” in terms of the parallels between Japanese comfort women during WWII and the modern-day women forced into sex slavery. Why do you think this phenomenon persists, despite increased efforts and awareness, including victims speaking out?
Over the many years, from what I have witnessed and heard from courageous, elderly wartime sex slavery survivors of the Japanese military before and during WWII, euphemistically known as ‘comfort women,’ there are many parallels with women and girls in modern sex trafficking. Today, women and girls from impoverished families are still tricked and deceived into forced prostitution with false promises of a good job.

I do believe that if the world powers had held the Japanese government to account for sanctioning and enslaving up to 400,000 girls and women in their military sex slavery system, it would have sent a powerful message that could have deterred sex slavery to a certain extent. Resolving this war atrocity would have also enabled Japan to work with other countries such as China and Korea to stop cross-border sex trafficking – if they cannot agree on historical sex slavery, how can they unite to eliminate modern-day, forced prostitution?

Another reason for why the cycle of sex slavery is repeating is the prevalence of gender discrimination or a preference for boy babies in the Asia Pacific, which has led to an alarming gender imbalance in mainland China. There are 20 million more men in China than women and it’s a root cause of the rise in bride trafficking from other countries in the region: North Korea, Myanmar, even from South Asia.

How important is the role of the media in raising awareness and acting on tackling the issues of modern slavery and sexual exploitation?
News media such as Southeast Asia Globe play a critical role of holding the powerful accountable and in shining a spotlight on modern slavery. News stories can have a measurable impact on public policy,; stories can galvanise the masses to act. Journalism is a much needed sacred role in this social media age where there’s a lot of fake news floating around. 

Why has Southeast Asia risen as a hub for human trafficking and modern slavery? 
I would say the whole world, and not just Southeast Asia, has the problem of human trafficking and modern slavery. But in certain Southeast Asian countries, the traffickers can get away with it. Thailand has a huge sex industry and many displaced, desperate Myanmar migrants due to the conflicts, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

Historical and generational factors are at play. Slavery survivors living in historical opium trafficking routes, now trading heroin, have told me that their ancestors were opium addicts. 

Is there one person you met in the course of writing this book whose story really stood out to you or really touched you?
I’m grateful that the news has gone viral of the woman chained by the neck in Jiangsu province in China. This is not new. Back in 2011, I was deeply moved by the testimony of a young woman who was sold as a bride at 14 years old to an elderly farmer in his 70s. She became pregnant at 15 then escaped, only to find herself forced to sell her body in a brothel by a trafficker who preyed on her at a bus depot.

I was also moved by meeting North Korean trafficked brides. Many of them were re-sold by their farmer husbands several times and had left children behind to escape to a country in Southeast Asia where they flew to Seoul to be granted citizenship upon arrival.

I’ve also been stunned by the plight of thousands of Indonesian child maids in Hong Kong and Singapore. These were vulnerable children who had their passports forged by unscrupulous agencies that were profit motivated. Because these underaged maids understandably lacked the maturity to handle real life work situations, it caused irreparable damage and trauma.

My friend’s story, “K,” is a source of inspiration to me. He used to be a trafficker of women in India and escaped to Hong Kong and found healing and redemption and is now serving as a missionary in a Southeast Asian country.

You mentioned in your book that you struggled with your Korean heritage and you later embraced it. Tell me more.
I’ve experienced the stinging humiliation of racial discrimination as the only Korean kid in my all Caucasian elementary school and neighbourhood in Vancouver, Canada. This rejection of my culture and what I looked like was my entry point into fighting for the voiceless and led me to write books on sex trafficking. It caused self-rejection and whitewashing my Korean identity. I’m grateful for that early experience of racism and ever since I have been a staunch defender of racial justice.

What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced when creating your documentaries and films?  Were there any “scary” encounters or moments when you felt you were either going to be harmed or perhaps end up in a prison or be deported?
I was at risk of being deported when crossing into another country through a back channel that humanitarian workers use and then had to go back and pretend I was a local and walk by a soldier. I almost passed out. In Bangkok in the evening while filming footage of the streets, I was grabbed from behind by a Middle Eastern man and I screamed at the top of my lungs. I was extra sensitive due to the nature of the film I was working on: sex trafficking. I’ve done a lot of crazy things back then that I wouldn’t do in this season of my life.  

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