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Human rights

Building a profile of the modern-day slave monger

Figures show that millions of vulnerable people live in bonded labor.

Duncan Jepson and B.C. Tan are just two figures who have taken steps to further the fight against modern-day slavery.

In an attempt to escape violent persecution in Myanmar, thousands of Rohingya migrants have fled to Thailand, only to suffer an entirely new ordeal: imprisonment by human traffickers. Auctioned off as slaves, the migrants are put to work on trawlers that ply East Indies fishing grounds. The hours are long, the work grueling. Food is scarce. Illness abounds. If a slave grows too frail to work, they are thrown overboard. Sometimes they are stabbed first. Then, just as the ship is about to finally return to port, often after months at sea, the captain cuts a deal with a passing trawler that is just setting out–and the slaves are handed off. Many slaves do not set foot on land for years. Or ever again.

This living nightmare isn’t unique to Rohingya migrants. Despite great gains made in universal human rights, slavery is thriving. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 21 million victims of human trafficking. Other estimates put the count as high as 36 million.

The scope of this problem came onto Duncan Jepson’s radar ten years ago. A Hong Kong lawyer by day, Jepson was a volunteer fundraiser for two charities, one in Afghanistan, the other in Nepal. Purely by chance, representatives from the two organizations crossed paths at a conference in Dubai. They discovered that they shared two things: a lack of intelligence about human trafficking, and a mutual friend in Jepson.

As the head of legal for an investment management company, Jepson routinely investigates whether a potential client might be involved in insider trading or money laundering. His day-job is all about connecting small bits of information to piece together the big picture. When it became clear that the slavery numbers weren’t adding up, he came to a conclusion: Just as he used detailed data to help investors steer clear of questionable dealings, perhaps better data could be the key to disrupting slavery.

Duncan Jepson (R) and B.C. Tan (L) speak in the Thomson Reuters office in Singapore.

“I was curious about the number of prosecutions; there are less than 10,000, which seems very small,” he recalls. “The number of victims identified hovers around the 40,000 mark–and yet we talk about [as many as] 36 million slaves. The numbers don’t make sense. How many people are vulnerable to be exploited? What information do we have about the 36 million slaves in the world? There didn’t seem to be very much available. There are a lot of qualitative reports, but when you start to dive into the information, it’s difficult to find much in the way of hard numbers.”

Fighting modern day slavery … with data

That fortuitous meeting in Dubai brought to light a surprising reality: the global NGO community rarely talks to each other, let alone shares data. It’s not that there isn’t anything to share. The anti-slavery organizations collect a wealth of information about their clientele: age, gender, nationality, where they were forced into slavery, and by whom. The catch, says Jepson, is there was no consistency as to how this data was collected; it could be written down on paper, or stored in an Excel spreadsheet. Jepson and his partners in Liberty Asia, an organization dedicated to fighting slavery, decided to get the NGOs communicating.

They initially considered creating a global hotline for NGOs to share data, but had second thoughts when they learned that a similar initiative in the U.S. yielded a tiny number of potentially actionable leads. Liberty Asia needed a different approach. They found one in an unexpected place: the world of retail.

Salesforce is a Cloud-based customer relationship management app that businesses use to store information about who their clients are (names, addresses, phone numbers) and what they do (purchase history, website visits, customer service calls). It is used by companies such as the Toms shoe store chain, and also organizations as diverse as Coca-Cola, Bombardier and Spotify.

Salesforce is free, regularly updated and well-supported. Further, reasoned Jepson, there is a relatively high degree of intra-organization mobility in the global NGO community, which would give workers a transferable skillset as a bonus.

Eight months ago, Liberty Asia started a pilot program offering free Salesforce training to the staff of three NGOs. Four more organizations are now being trained in the software, with more waiting in the wings. When there is a critical mass of organizations gathering the same kinds of data about victim cases, Jepson hopes that a shared database could lead to a better understanding of which populations are most at risk, and why. (He is careful to note that Liberty Asia does not have access to the data being collected, and will not necessarily be involved in future aggregation and analysis.)

At the same time that Jepson wanted to know more about the victims of slavery, he became curious about the other actors in this horrific drama: The traffickers.

The other side of the equation

Despite the terrible physical and psychological tolls it takes on its victims, slavery is ultimately a business decision. A cheap, or free, labor force is good for the bottom line. There are large amounts of money being made from slave labor–$150-billion annually by some accounts. Much of this money is being moved through the world’s banking systems, and yet there is very little data about the relationship between human trafficking and money laundering. As a lawyer with years of experience helping financial institutions investigate whether potential clients had shady backgrounds, a lightbulb went off for Jepson: World-Check.

World-Check collects open-source data on people or organizations under sanction or embargo, those who have been convicted of corruption or bribery, those convicted of criminal activity, and terrorists. (World-Check isn’t a blacklist, though: It also includes the names of law-abiding people, e.g., public officials, whose business activities would require a bank to engage in an extra stringent review process.)

In entered B.C. Tan, who says that World-Check had already been developing a slavery typology–a detailed profile of what human trafficking activity looks like, even in the absence of a criminal conviction for slavery–for about a decade. Tan is World-Check’s former global head of organised crime research, and is now the head of research for the Asia-Pacific region for Thomson Reuters, which acquired World-Check in 2011. World-Check had been scraping media reports for leads, and talking to law enforcement agencies around the world, in order to expand their database of 2.5 million names and aliases of individuals and organizations from 240 countries. The problem was that so much human trafficking activity had yet to be brought to light–or to court. What World-Check needed was the kind of front-line information that NGOs collect.

B.C. Tan is the head of research for the Asia-Pacific region for Thomson Reuters.

Although World-Check has collaborated with NGOs in the past, Tan was particularly intrigued by what he calls Liberty Asia’s “transnational approach.” Slavery, he says, routinely crosses borders–and that makes it tough to fight. “The influence of everything else–law enforcement, policy makers, government–is limited by geography and borders and sovereignty. What Liberty Asia proposed was looking at this problem across the board and seeing how to connect people who were engaged in the same types of activities.”

Jepson’s team set about expanding World-Check’s scope. They dove deep into NGO data about the questionable activities they had observed–the fishing boats known to crew up with unpaid labor, the mining company that physically abused its workers, the textiles factory with bars on its windows and children at worktables. Last year, they brought those cases to World-Check. Together, they agreed on a criminal typology, which World-Check’s analysts used to generate approximately 200 names of people and organizations engaged in the practice. Liberty Asia has since added 100 more names.

Now, when a business is doing due diligence about a new opportunity–whether it’s a bank deciding whether to lend money to a fruit plantation, or a supermarket chain putting out a call for new seafood suppliers–World-Check flags suspicious activity.

“A good businessperson wants to know who their clients are,” says Jepson. “The truth of it is that a transaction becomes less attractive because there is a risk of some sort of criminal activity occurring in that area.”

Tan adds that, although he believes that most people truly care about the issue of slavery, there is also the reality that corporations value good publicity and trust. “We’ve done studies analyzing companies that have been involved in scandals, and we’ve seen a very close correlation between bad publicity and the company’s stock prices,” he says, noting that this is an important incentive for companies to make informed decisions about who they do business with. “There’s a significant financial impact, and that gets companies more concerned with reputational risk.”

More awareness, less slavery

It’s a slow fight, admits Tan, but he feels like progress is underway. “With our partnership with Liberty Asia, we are now plugged into a larger network,” he says. “We’re getting more leads. We’re getting more expertise. We’re getting access to information that, even though it was open source, we just weren’t aware of before, like local newspapers. Intelligence is all about piecing things together to get the whole picture.”

Confidentiality agreements mean that World-Check doesn’t know how its clients are using its information, or to what outcome. “But what we are seeing,” he says, “is a big increase in our clients asking questions regarding how robust our coverage of human trafficking is. The industry is paying much more attention to this topic. They want the information.”

More importantly, they’re using that information to avoid doing business with human traffickers. Tan points to a 2014 investigation by a journalist at the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that outed the slavery practices of certain Thailand fishing operations. The investigation followed the supply chain from sea to supermarket shelf: The Thai slave ships harvested inedible “trash fish,” which it sold as fishmeal to the world’s largest prawn farmer–who, in turn, sold its seafood to Costco, Tesco, Walmart and other large retailers.

“What happened after that was nothing short of amazing,” Tan says. “These supermarket chains were forced to react. There was the big media hoo-ha, of course, but then [many of the retailers] appointed internal compliance officers to investigate their entire retail supply chain and discontinue relationships with any companies that had any involvement with unfair human rights practices, or partners who would not sign a declaration that they did not use slave labor.”

When they’re no longer able to reap the spoils of slavery, Jepson says, traffickers will be forced to rethink their business practices.

“What we want, ultimately, is businesses that are aligned with labor laws and mindful of human rights. We want a better system, where suppliers are required to say, ‘We should do a better job because people are making better decisions than they were two years ago’–and that will reduce slavery.”


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