Monday, December 27, 2010

My interview with Roger Plant. No, not from Led Zeppelin, but just as cool.

This past November I attended the Freedom Awards in Los Angeles, hosted by the international organization Free the Slaves. The Freedom Awards celebrate the heroes of the modern anti-slavery movement. The awards are open to organizations and individuals working to combat human trafficking and modern slavery.

Roger Plant, not to be confused with Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, one of my favorite bands, was the winner of the William Wilberforce Award at the 2010 Freedom Award ceremony. Plant is a renowned Mathematician and human rights activist. As head of a UN agency task force, he set out to count the number of slaves in the world today. The premise: you can’t cure it if you can’t count it. His global estimates of slavery—and of the profits made by slaveholders—have helped forge a worldwide governmental response.

His researchers went country by country, adapting statistical methods used to estimate hard-to-count endangered wildlife populations. The team determined there are at least 12 million people forced to work against their will in the world today, generating nearly $32 billion in illicit profits for traffickers.

The team was quick to say their figures were a minimum estimate, noting that they had uncovered just the “tip of a disturbing iceberg.”

“In fact,” Roger notes of his estimate, the actual number of slaves could be “two to three times as big.”

Free the Slaves estimates there are 27 million slaves in the world today.

I had the chance to sit down with Roger and talk with him about his work, what needs to happen to end slavery, and the importance of staying positive in the midst of such atrocities.

Q: How difficult has it been to convince governments and politicians that slavery still exists?

A: It was always difficult. We had and continue to have support from some politicians, but around the world politicians are still reluctant to come to grips with those underlying causes of modern slavery. Those underlying causes are that totally unscrupolous people are making large amounts of money by deceiving and by exploiting the vulnerable. This is particularly the case of migrant workers coming to countries, including the United States.

It's very good that the latest amendment to the U.S. anti-trafficking bill has included criminal offenses for fraudulent recruitment, because that is what a lot of modern slavery is all about. It's fraudulent recruitment in order to ruthlessly exploit the vulnerable so that people can make unfair profits at the expense of the vulnerable.

Q: Has modern slavery become worse with the world economic downturn?

A: I think it was getting worse with the somewhat weakening of labor protection that we have seen since the 1980's. Now I think there is an even greater risk that we will see more exploitation when th economy is in a difficult state and people around the word are trying to cut costs, and the first thing they often try to cut is their labor costs.

Q: What's the greatest opportunity to combat slavery right now?

A: I think the greatest opportunity is to build those bridges between concerned politicians, concerned businessmen and concerned consumers. We also have to work very hard to get the established trade unions to really tackle these issues. Often trade unions don't want to think about those who are not their fee paying and due paying members. They've got to realize that these problems are undercutting their wages for everybody.

So you have got to get those, what we call, multi-state cultural alliances, sometimes focused on a particular sector like charcoal or electronics. We have seen a lot of forced slave labor penetrating electronics and other industries around the world.

Q: You talk about these alliances. I've read about the Cocoa Initiative. Is that the way you perceive these alliances being successful with businesses?

A: Absolutely. I think a very good way is to focus on a particular crop, or a particular ingredient in a supply chain. If I am consumer, I have a lot of power. But I only have that power if I know how slave labor is penetrating the supply chain, who is responsible and what to look out for.

The other thing, is you have to be very careful not to penalize the producers. It's very easy for a big company just to walk away and to pull out of a country where there are problems with forced labor. They can't do that. Where they can actually help in these developing countries is to improve those conditions.

Q: Any recent successes from your work you would like to tell us about?

A: There are many countries where I am glad to see progress. I can even list the United States. I think there is a growing awareness in the U.S. that you really do have slavery and forced labor. We see Kevin Bales latest books on slavery. We see the new legislation, we see the new task forces and I think this is very positive.

We have seen major initiatives in countries like Brazil. They have not walked away from forced labor, but they have not denied it and are working against it. We have also seen major pacts between private industry with government support in Brazil.

I have found great progress in India. India is probably where you have the most deeply embedded forms of slavery like conditions with bonded labor. When I say India, I mean South Asia in general. India, Pakistan, Nepal, etc... But by working in a constructive way at the state level, at the local level and by bringing together the local government officials, rice producers, other employers and civil groups and NGO's and trade unions, we have seen a realization that has gone right up to the federal government level. They realize they can do things, they can wipe this out.

I say around the globe that I can detect many more signs of commitment. We see more legislation in place and more task forces in place. I think the greatest challenge that is still with us is to weed out the criminals and the abusive forms of recruitment. This is driving men, women and children into new kinds of forced labor in both developing and undeveloped countries.

Q: I know for me it can be difficult to read and write about some of the atrocities of modern slavery. How important is it for you to stay positive in your work?

A: I think it is absolutely essential to stay positive. That's one of the lessons I have learned over the last 30 years. I was telling the colleagues today that I come from an NGO background. I started out working with human rights in Latin America in the 1970's. I saw people tortured, killed and kidnapped. It's a terrible situation to see a friend machine gunned to death shortly after you have spoken to them. It becomes very easy to focus on the negative.

But I have really learned that as I have interacted with the victims of forced labor, politicians and governments at all levels that you must stay positive. You must get people to engage.

We think it's a challenge. We think it's a challenge that until recently has not achieved sufficient recognition, but it is growing. The risk of an intensification and worsening of these conditions is always there, but we've got to seek every opportunity and we must remain positive and optimistic.

Q: Any advice for people learning about this issue who want to get involved?

A: Really look at everything. Look at your surroundings. When you go to the market and pickup a potato, think "How was this produced?" and start asking those questions.

Start asking your politicians these questions as well. When you see people working at a construction site, in a factory or wherever, always keep asking and keep alert, because there are very harmful and very dangerous things going on in labor markets today.

And I repeat, not only in the leather factories of India, but in the citrus growing and sugar of developing countries, including the United States. I have seen them in my own country, the United Kingdom. I am glad to say that we have some new mechanisms in the UK to weed out what they call gangmasters and forced labor. We have seen progress in the U.S. and always keep alert and make sure that you know where to go to report when you see or suspect a victim of forced labor.

There’s a tremendous amount of good will around in the world. Our job is to mobilize the good will against the bad.

Roger Plant received $10,000 as part of the William Wilberforce award from Free the Slaves. During his acceptance speech, he donated his award money to one of the other award winners, the JEEVIKA organization of India.

You can see more about Roger Plant and his work in the video clip below.

Roger Plant 2010 William Wilberforce Award Winner - Freedom Awards from Free the Slaves on Vimeo.

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