Image via Ahmad Masood/Reuters. 

New Immersive Platform Explores Root Causes and Human Toll of the Modern Slave Trade

The focus of a new storytelling platform by the Council on Foreign Relations tells of the over 40 million children and teens enslaved by a multibillion-dollar industry.

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Feb 15 2018, 7:15pm

Image via Ahmad Masood/Reuters. 

I was texting this guy and he was like, ‘Do you need help? Do you need somewhere to go?’ I was like, yeah, can you come pick me up. I didn't know at that point, but he was a pimp," Natalie said. "I was 15 and I shouldn't have been sleeping with 35 year olds in their cars with their little kids in the back seat. Like I shouldn't have been doing that. I should have been going to homecoming and having a boyfriend that didn't sell me to people." Natalie was only 15 when she became a slave.

She recounted her experience on Modern Slavery, an immersive storytelling tool designed to educate on all angles of the $150 billion industry. Produced by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), the platform brings together rare testimonies of modern day slavery survivors, as well as data, maps and in-depth research. The aim: highlight the scope of the issue and help bring attention to the 40.3 million (and counting) people that are enslaved worldwide. 1.95 million of which are, like Natalie was, enslaved in the U.S.

“We really wanted to bring a human face to this because there was no way we could powerfully describe a situation of a survivor or a victim of trafficking,” Eleanor Albert, the lead researcher and producer for the project at CFR told VICE Impact.

Another face is Jihyun. Born in North Korea, she escaped to China with her younger brother who had left the military. “Once in China I met a Chinese broker, and he said that maybe to save my brother I needed money. So he said that if you don’t marry the Chinese man, we will contact the police and repatriate you and your brother to North Korea. So I told him okay, I’ll just marry the Chinese man.” But the outcome of her marriage was not was she had hoped for. Her brother was sent back anyway. She hasn't heard from him for 17 years. “I still don’t know if he survived or not.”

CFR’s research gives a bleak outlook: “North Korea sentences citizens accused of anti-state infractions to time in prison or labor camps. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners work in mines, factories, farms, and logging camps, the United Nations found in 2014.”

Another face is Vicky’s, a young man in India, who like millions of others is kept enslaved in what’s called bonded labour. A type of slavery passed down in his case from his grandmother and then mother. “I went around 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, washed clothes, chopped vegetables, sometimes dusted, washed the dishes. They made me do this work. There was no timetable, they would call at any time. No payment was given,” he explained.


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The Modern Slavery InfoGuide is the ninth in an Emmy Award-winning series that also includes “Deforestation in the Amazon,” “The Time of the Kurds,” “The Eastern Congo,” “The Taliban,” “The Sunni-Shia Divide,” “The Emerging Arctic,” “Child Marriage,” and “China’s Maritime Disputes."

VICE Impact spoke to the lead researcher Eleanor Albert who wrote and produced the Modern Slavery tool to find out more about how she hopes this guide can educate and catalyse change.

VICE Impact: From forced labour in North Korea to sex trafficking in the U.S. Modern Slavery brings together a lot of in-depth research and testimonies. How did you do it?

Eleanor Albert: The projects had different waves to it but I was researching the whole time trying to dig up reports. Modern slavery happens everywhere, so it was a case of bringing together different case studies that demonstrate different elements across regions and probability factors, because of course there would be no other way to show how this does happen everywhere.

And then it was about structuring it in a way that made sense, streamlining information and dividing it into different topics and issues and case studies to illustrate our point. Our goal was to raise awareness about modern slavery and make this information easy to access and digest.

Was this project spurred on by today’s migration crisis?

We wanted to draw on the fact that the world today is much more in a state of flux than we’ve been accustomed to. You have a record numbers of people being forcibly displaced, both internally within countries and across borders. This has brought more attention to displacement and trafficking because you have more people visibly moving.

Based on all your research, what do you think are the biggest misconceptions of modern slavery?

The first is that the phenomenon is limited to the developing world but it certainly isn’t. It’s a global issue and different manifestations of slavery exist in practically every country.

The second is that sex trafficking is the dominant form of slavery in the world. It’s actually only part of the problem. If you look at the most recent estimates put out by the International Labour Organisation and Walk Free Foundation who collaborated together, they say that 50 percent of people that are enslaved are in debt bondage or bonded labour.

The third, which came out in a lot of our research and discussions with experts on the subject is that people think of trafficking or slavery as an issue that crosses international borders but it doesn't have to. It doesn't have to cross one national border into another, it’s not an issue exclusively linked to migration. Traffickers prey on and recruit people within communities that they are familiar with. They can be runaways, they can be homeless. But it happens where people are most comfortable. There is a certain development of trust that happens and then that trust is exploited.

And it’s not necessarily just girls. It can be boys too.

What can we as consumers do to ensure that we don’t support modern slavery?

There is an increasing number of companies that are making a point to not only be sustainable, for example but also exploitative free, either of labour or the material that they make they goods of. So someone who is motivated to play a larger role can inform themselves and make consumer choices based on how companies are sourcing their products. Some businesses are trying out different pilot programmes to find out more about their supply chain, but this is just the start.

For me, the biggest step, especially in the U.S., where slavery tends to be discussed in a historical context and linked to the trade of the nineteenth century, is for people to educate themselves and spread awareness by simply having conversations with other people about the phenomenon. This would be a great starting point for anyone that wants to do something about modern slavery.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.