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I learned I was trafficked in the middle of the ocean

“The captain told me I was sold”

It took a while for Ron, a Cambodian survivor of human trafficking into Thailand’s fishing industry, to realise he was a slave. “I arrived on the boat,” he remembers. “I only learned that I was trafficked when I was in the middle of the ocean. The Thai captain told me that I was sold.”

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Ron had few opportunities near his home in Siem Reap to earn sufficient money to care for his family. And so, as happens with countless other impoverished men like him, Ron was entangled by a network of recruiters, brokers and ship captains.

What Ron endured at sea was more than a few violations of labour law. That he and his fellow workers were forced to work 22 to 23 -hour days is inhumane. That he worked consecutive days without rest or meals when the captain wasn’t satisfied, is inhumane. That he was never paid is inhumane. That he was hit with wine bottles and witnessed coworkers thrown overboard, is inhumane.

The Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018, which came into effect 1 January 2019, is good news for people like Ron. Under the new law, companies and organisations operating in Australia with an annual revenue of over $100 million are required to report annually on the modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains and what actions they are taking to address those risks.

Companies are making efforts to mitigate the slavery risks by improving recruitment practices, developing internal monitoring mechanisms and codes of conduct, paying for external audits and certifications, and even relocating operations. This is a big and welcome step forward that may encourage safer and more just conditions for workers like Ron down the supply chain.

However, the current focus on audits and supply chain due diligence can, at the same time, result in a tick-the-box exercise that mitigates risk for the enterprise, while failing to address the abuses suffered by the workers actually involved.

Solving the issue of slavery requires an understanding that slavery is not just a labour violation. It is a violent crime.

Consumers assume that corporations are able to trace their entire supply chain and have the leverage to pressure deep-chain suppliers—like Ron’s captain—to change their labour practices.

While businesses can improve working conditions in the top tiers of their supply chain, the majority of forced labour—where the most violent abuse and exploitation occurs—happens deep in the supply chain or in low-skilled, informal sectors. They’re beyond the reach of company audits and labour law.

Thus compliance measures will be insufficient in eliminating slavery in supply chains if the justice system in host countries where suppliers are located lack the capacity to enforce existing laws against slavery and labour exploitation.

In Thailand, prosecutions for forced labour trafficking on Thai fishing boats are rare, making up only 2 percent of all trafficking prosecutions in Thailand in 2017.

For Ron, the lack of meaningful law enforcement made him vulnerable to traffickers operating out of sight of auditors.

In Thailand, prosecutions for forced labour trafficking on Thai fishing boats are rare, making up only 2 percent of all trafficking prosecutions in Thailand in 2017. Convictions are even rarer. Even when trafficking cases are successfully prosecuted, sentences tend to be low: only 33 percent of trafficking convictions resulted in sentences of longer than 10 years’ imprisonment in 2017.

As a global community, we need to invest in building capacity within the local justice systems to ensure adequate enforcement of anti-trafficking laws. This will create an enabling business environment from which corporations can source with confidence: a slavery-free zone.

While businesses—particularly multinationals corporations—wield sizeable influence, only governments have the ability, responsibility and authority to respond to and prevent criminal activity.  When governments adequately enforce their laws and punish traffickers, slavery is stoppable.

International Justice Mission saw this when we partnered with Cambodian local authorities to combat child sex trafficking. Through on-the-ground capacity building of local law enforcement and over 200 convictions, there was a 73 percent drop in the prevalence of children trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation in three cities in Cambodia between 2012-2015.

This is why corporations and investors should prioritise investment in functioning law enforcement, including anti-trafficking police units, special prosecutors and legal assistance for abused workers. Companies have a great opportunity to lead by going beyond internal due diligence and coming to grips with the broader problem of criminal impunity.

At IJM we are seeing global companies awaken to the idea of engaging sustainable solutions to end the scourge of human trafficking.

When Walmart found slavery in their South East Asian seafood supply chain, it engaged its foundation to co-fund (with the U.S. Department of State) IJM’s work alongside the Thai government, combatting labour trafficking in the fishing industry. This public-private investment, combined with direct engagement with stakeholders and beneficiaries at the country level, is an innovative approach to ending modern slavery. It’s bringing freedom to victims in a region where many seafood global supply chains begin.

Supply partnerships like this means that the thousands of people who are, just like Ron was, held in slavery in the Thai fishing industry will one day be free. One day, even Southeast Asia will be a slavery-free zone. Collaboratively, we can disrupt the root cause of modern slavery.

Caroly Houmes is Chief Executive at International Justice Mission Australia, International Justice Mission is the largest global anti-slavery organisation.

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