I scour the globe for stories worth reading about ventures that are a true force for good for humanity and our planet.
That’s why I’m THRILLED to feature Matt Friedman, CEO of the Mekong Club.
40% of the 40 million men, women, and children in modern day slavery can be found in the factories, construction sites and fisheries of everyday companies under the radar of the leadership of these businesses.
By educating and activating, Friedman and the Mekong Club’s mission is to inspire and engage the private sector and captains of industry from the top-down to work towards a slave-free world.
Their impact to date?
Over the past 9 years, the Mekong Club has directly reached over 120,000 corporate officials and executives including C-suite through events, consultations, working groups, trainings, and other activities. They’ve interviewed over 25,000 supply chain workers using our Apprise Audit tool and we offered support in many remediation cases. The Mekong Club offers over 30 award-winning tools available to address modern slavery and are internationally mentioned in the media at least 40 times a year.
Let’s dive into the deep end.
Diana Tsai: What’s the problem you’re solving?
Matt Friedman: Modern Slavery, which represents the recruitment, transport, receipt and harbouring of people for the purpose of exploiting their labor, affects almost all parts of the world. Globally, according to the Slavery Index (United Nations), it is estimated that there are over 40 million men, women and children in situations in modern day slavery today, with more than half in Asia alone. 16 million of these victims are directly associated with supply chains around the world. These victims, who can be found in factories, construction sites, within fisheries and sex venues, are forced to work for little or no pay, deprived of their freedom, and often subjected to unimaginable suffering.
Tsai: How are you solving it?
Friedman: The Mekong Club is solving this issue from the top-down – partnering with some of the largest companies in the world to understand the issue of modern slavery and how to mitigate its risk within their networks and supply chains. We are a membership-based organization and our partners include many of the largest companies in the world as well as committed regional and local corporations. Over the years, we have built deep and trusted relationships with our business association members across sectors such as banking, hospitality, garment, food and beverage, toys, and footwear. Our members receive regular up-to-date information and expert training on issues relevant to their industry, and meet regularly to learn and share best practices. We bring years of experience working with companies and their many dedicated employees, providing practical tools, strategic thinking and a forum to join together to help stop modern slavery.
We focus on systemic change because we seek to permanently break the cycle of modern slavery. We collaborate because we know that we are stronger together. We build much-needed awareness, commitment and collaboration among the business community to strengthen industries against modern slavery.
Much of our work consists of technology-based tools with enormous potential for impact. Each of these tools solves a major problem. For example, the Apprise Audit tool helps to improve the identification of vulnerable workers during social audits. This app is being used by auditors and frontline responders to interview workers in their own language, via a headset. Data collected is aggregated and provides an immediate snapshot view of potential modern slavery indicators that have been flagged during the interview process. This tool has helped to significantly increase modern slavery identification within factories across Asia.
Tsai: What motivated you personally to start this nonprofit?
Friedman: I set up the Mekong Club as a not-for-profit to harness the diverse strengths of the private sector to help address the business risks of modern slavery. With United Nations’ data indicating that more than 16 million people in modern slavery are directly associated with the private sector, and with few organizations focusing on this target group, I decided to set up the Mekong Club in Hong Kong. During visits to this city, I learned that many businesses knew very little about either the issue in general or the specific vulnerabilities that existed within their own networks and supply chains. While most had heard about new and existing compliance legislation, few had the detailed information and guidance they needed to fully address the spirit of this legislation to protect their business from risk. Few also understood that the profits generated by modern slavery were US$150 billion annually, making it the second largest transnational crime.
Tsai: Paint a future state picture for us of what the world looks like when you solve this problem.
Friedman: A world free of modern slavery would be a place where workers do not experience physical and sexual violence, where intimidation and threats are absent, and where workers can come and go at will without being held in place. This world would be free of deceptive scams that trick unsuspecting and vulnerable workers into accepting exploitative work situations. It would be a world where worksites do not demand excessive overtime, abusive working and living conditions, and isolation.
A world free of modern slavery would also bring us closer to honoring the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which provide for: the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and the right to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work, in particular remuneration which provides all workers, as a minimum, with fair wages and more.
Diana: A little vulnerability – how do you take care of you so that you can be the best version of yourself for the world?
The stark reality of the modern slavery situation is that it is very sad and depressing much of the time. Many people like me who work in this area are seriously affected by their experiences. It is easy to be drowned in despair. Those who can’t overcome this will burn out or fail to be effective.
What keeps people like me going? Knowing that there are so many victims in need. And knowing that we have the ability to help. It is all about persisting in hope.
Having said this, over the years I have come to realize that I have my limits. Many times, I have been completely shut down by an experience. I am not a superman who can turn everything off and keep forging ahead. Not for long anyway. I will be forever haunted by memories of terrible things I have seen. But despite this, I continue moving forward. It is what activists do.
A recurrent issue I face when making presentations is the fatalistic view that modern slavery problems are too overwhelming and pervasive to tackle. The disparity between 40 million victims and only 100,000 people rescued annually (0.2 percent) by the entire counter trafficking community combined, causes people to question me. They ask, “With so many victims, it seems impossible to make a difference. Why should we try?” My response is usually the same. I tell them the well-known Starfish Story.
This simple parable makes the important point – that every life is precious. The story goes like this. A father and son walk along a beach covered with stranded starfish. Every few feet, the father stoops to pick up a starfish and toss it back into the ocean. At some point, the son looks at the immense stretch of sand, full of dying starfish, and says, “Father, there is no way you can save all of these starfish. What difference can you make?” The wise father pauses to toss another starfish to safety. In a gentle voice, he responds, “It made all the difference to that one.”
Every life is important – every life is precious. The modern slavery problem feels so big and so unmanageable that it can easily shut us down emotionally. But this mustn’t stop us from doing whatever we can with what we have. To each person rescued, it makes a VERY big difference.
Tsai: How can readers get involved/support/help?
Friedman: If you are working for a company that is already addressing this topic, you can volunteer to offer your skills and experience to support these efforts. If these efforts have not yet been initiated, you can approach your leadership to provide them with information on what the private sector is doing within banking, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, construction and more. Our website provides a wealth of information on these topics. We also have a full array of diagnostic tools to help assess where a business is related to the topic and what more that can be done to address any gaps.
On an individual basis, there are many things that readers can do to help address this problem. For example, the easiest is helping to create general awareness. You can learn more about the topic and educate yourself and others. Another excellent option is to volunteer with a Non-Government Organization (NGO) that is working on this problem. These organizations can be easily located by googling your city and the issue of human trafficking. Finally, you could also consider donating or fundraising for those who are doing the work. One of the biggest challenges faced by NGOs is a lack of resources. Helping to raise these resources can directly impact the problem.
Diana: Anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had?
One question I often get asked is why should the private sector step up related to this issue? My answer is simple – more and more companies are coming to realize that their efforts do not have to solely revolve around maximizing profits and expanding their business. There is an emerging trend among companies to integrate the idea of “doing something for the greater good” into their corporate DNA. This is very much in line with the new emphasis being placed on ESG as an essential topic.
Doing good and being profitable are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be complementary, and doing good can even offer a competitive advantage. Consumers respect companies that take a social stand. There is something inherently noble about a company taking on an issue like modern slavery and publicly saying, “We feel that this is wrong, and we feel compelled to do what we can to be part of the solution.” I firmly believe that the private sector has the power to significantly reduce the number of cases of modern slavery with more detailed supply chain audits and more direct involvement of their leaders.
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