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What can I do? A beginner’s guide to ending modern-day slavery

a child behind a chain link fence
Posted September 23, 2018

This Sunday marks International Day of Prayer for Victims of Human Trafficking. While we intercede for victims, we may wonder what in the world we can do to stop this abuse of human lives? All of us are part of the answer.

A friend of mine decided to ask ‘the question’ recently. She had gone to a masseuse, where most of the staff did not speak English. Seeing the signs of a place where people could be exploited or enslaved, my friend decided to take the courageous step and ask: What are the working conditions like here? Do you get paid enough?

It did not go well. The poor masseuse, with limited English, misunderstood the question: ‘I assure you nothing like that goes on here!’ she exclaimed. After some embarrassing and awkward clarifications, the masseuse assured her that she was paid fairly, and there was no exploitation.

My friend reflected that, despite her embarrassment, she was glad she asked: ‘Of course, I’ll never know whether that was one hundred percent true, but if I hadn’t asked, I would always feel worried. And you never know how a small question can plant a seed, or help someone open up about an exploitative situation,’ she says.

In this part of the world, it can seem like slavery is something that happens in other countries. A horror that’s nothing to do with us. The reality is that we do have cases here of people being trafficked, exploited and enslaved. Today, in New Zealand, about 3000 people are slaves, trafficking victims or in bonded labour.

Worldwide there are more than 40 million people in slavery and bonded labour. Some of them help make our clothes, food and technology.

The UK anti-slavery charity Unseen defines slavery as ‘the commodification of people for the purpose of exploitation and financial gain’. Globally, slavery is a US$150 billion business, equal to the earnings of Apple, Google, Microsoft and Starbucks combined—and is now more profitable than the drug trade.

In New Zealand, the most common form of modern slavery involves worker exploitation and forced labour. Two years ago, local charity Stand Against Slavery released a report with stories from some of those who are slaves or trafficked in New Zealand. The report found cases of exploitation in the construction, dairy, horticulture, hospitality, international education, sex and fishing industries.

Often this took the form of extremely low wages, as little as $4 an hour—particularly among fruit pickers. Migrant workers on fishing boats were beaten and had passports and other documents confiscated.

The report authors also spoke to people working in cafés and restaurants being forced to work up to 90-hour weeks while only being paid for 40 hours. Others faced debt bondage, where they were charged up to $40,000 in ‘recruitment fees’ that came out of their wages. A group of Filipino construction workers who came to work on the Christchurch earthquake rebuild were caught in this situation. Some of them were also told they would have to pay up to USD$10,000 if they tried to leave their jobs.

Shakti NZ, which works with migrant women, has identified trafficking among arranged marriages and temporary visas.

This isn’t confined to migrant workers, with some New Zealanders being caught in these jobs. As social worker and Women’s Refuge policy analyst Nathalie Thorburn found, we also have a problem with Kiwi teenagers and even children being coerced, often violently, into prostitution. These girls—one as young as nine—might not fit the stereotype, but they were trafficked and abused. They are part of the picture of slavery and trafficking in New Zealand.

In the face of all that we can feel powerless, but there are things we can do right here to combat slavery. Things that, however small they seem to us, will genuinely make a difference.

So what can we do?

1. Be informed: We can’t tackle something we don’t know about, but there are many places where we can start to find information. www.Slaveryfootprint.org is a good place to start to get an idea of how the slave trade directly affects you. And once you know, you can act.

2. Stay alert: The number of people who have been trafficked or are slaves in New Zealand may be small, but they are out there. Some of the signs someone is being exploited or enslaved include:
    •    not being allowed to speak for themselves, you can only speak to their boss or through a translator
    •    someone else takes money on their behalf
    •    working very long hours with little, if any, time off
    •    living at work, or always in the presence of their employer
    •    not having a passport or ID, or someone else holding it
    •    appearing scared, especially of authorities or their employer
    •    having rehearsed statements or stories about their life or won’t talk about it
    •    showing signs of abuse.

3. Shop smart: In our global market, slaves can be found everywhere—from banana plantations to clothes factories, to people who mine minerals that go into our smart phones and laptops. It’s not always simple to work out what brands are good, bad or making an effort, but there are lots of groups out there with good information to help. Good Guide, Free2Work and Shop Ethical all publish guides to different brands.

When it comes to your clothes—check the Tearfund Ethical Fashion Guide for companies that are making an effort to prevent slavery in their business and suppliers.

When it comes to your food—look for items that have a Fairtrade, or another equivalent mark, showing it’s fair. Buying local is usually a good idea as well, but be aware that we have had some cases of exploitation of farm workers, so again, research is always a good idea.

4. Be involved: The good news is you may already be involved without even knowing it. One of the easiest ways to help fight slavery is to be part of tackling poverty. If you gave to the Self Denial Appeal, support your corps, donate to your nearest Community Ministries, have a recurring donation through The Foodbank Project (www.foodbank.org.nz) or shop at your nearest Family Store, then you’re taking action that helps.  A lot of slavery is about power and exploitation—desperate people are more willing to do desperate things. If we can reduce poverty, we make it much harder for people to be exploited.

The Salvation Army also has several anti-slavery programmes internationally that you can support, or there are New Zealand anti-slavery agencies like Stand Against Slavery and Hagar.

Another great way is to sponsor programmes or centres working with children in developing countries through The Salvation Army’s Child Sponsorship programme. You’ll be making a contribution to life-changing work for children, their families and whole communities in some of the poorest parts of the world. Head over to www.salvationarmy.org.nz/childsponsorship to find out more and sign up.  

5. Report it: If you do see something—act. Call the police, or you can report it anonymously by calling Crimestoppers 0800 555 111 or visiting the Crimestoppers website and filling out an online form.

If you are concerned that slavery of some form is happening and you speak up, the worst you’ll suffer is a bit of embarrassment—like my friend at the massage parlour. Or, you could literally save a life.

In many ways, each one of us can make everyday choices that make it harder and less worthwhile for traffickers to exploit others. We’re all in it together, and it takes every one of us to stop modern-day slavery.


By Robin Raymond (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 22 September 2018, p14-15- You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.