TED Fellows

Fighting modern slavery: Fellows Friday with Siddharth Kara

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  • Siddharth Kara fights bonded labor, forced labor, and human trafficking with what he says are the most effective weapons against them: rigorous scientific research and analysis. Read his interview below to learn why dispassionate study may be the antidote to this inherently emotional issue, and why Siddharth is optimistic about the direction of the anti-slavery movement. Click here to follow his updates on CNN.com as he travels South Asia investigating labor exploitation.

    Tell us about your research.

    I’ve been researching modern slavery of all kinds for about ten years. I’ve now covered six continents and 18 countries, and I’m writing a series of three books on the subject. I’m putting forth what I think is the first real, strategic, comprehensive, global analysis of the phenomenon. This means not just anecdotes and a superficial or sensationalistic look at slavery, but really trying to dig in to understanding how this is all working in the global economic context, in the global legal context, and what are the various business models of labor exploitation? Are there weak or vulnerable points in those models that may be susceptible to the right kind of tactical policy or legal intervention?

    There are three categories of slavery I’ve broadly identified: bonded labor, forced labor, and human trafficking. I’m covering these three subjects somewhat in the three books. The first book [Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery] actually focused on a subset of human trafficking, which is forced prostitution. That came out last year. My next book will focus very much on the bonded labor category. And the third book will kind of cover the rest.

    What approach do you take when writing your books?

    All three books tend to be based on analysis and reliable data and research. You see, slavery and labor exploitation are inherently sensational to begin with. When you hear stories of men, women, and children being coerced against their will to perform some labor or service, certainly the most extreme cases of that kind of exploitation are already sensational. They’re already shocking to us. And unfortunately, in the ten years that I’ve been doing this research, there’s really been a limited amount of progress in both knowledge and efficacy to fight the phenomenon.

    This is primarily a result of the focus on the sensational. People, whether knowingly or unknowingly, leverage that quality of the issue for their own good — be it fundraising for their NGO, selling books and stories, making movies. Whatever taps a human nerve can also be very marketable.

    You see a lot of data and information being thrown around — numbers and statistics. But if you ask those people, “Where did that come from?” they can almost never explain it to you. And efforts to galvanize a grassroots global movement of every day citizens to combat the issue have tended to fragment and falter because after that initial wave of agitation and worry learning about slavery creates, without a comprehensive and specific plan driven by good analysis, people lose their interest.

    So what I’m trying to do is very much shift the paradigm to focus specifically on starting with the analysis and then saying “What does this tell us? What recommendations can we make that are based on analysis?” It’s fortuitous for me that my background is in economics and law because I think these are the two most important disciplines when it comes to understanding labor and labor exploitation.

    Slavery has always been an economic crime. Of course it’s an abhorrent human rights violation. But it’s fundamentally an economic crime: it seeks to maximize profit by minimizing or eliminating the cost of labor. That’s been the formula for millennia. It hasn’t changed from 2,000 – 3,000 years ago or more to today. Now, the modes and means and sophistication and complexity and profitability of that formula have certainly changed. But the formula has remained the same.

    You mentioned trying to find and target vulnerabilities in the business models of slavery. Can you talk about what those might be?

    Well, it depends very much on which form of slavery you’re talking about, because the business model of various forms of labor exploitation are very different. So, let’s look at the example of sex trafficking. The key thesis that emerged from my analysis is that the enormity and pervasiveness of the global sex trafficking industry and its rapid growth across the last 20 years is driven by its ability to generate immense profit at almost no real risk.

    The business opportunity that is presented to the criminal is the following: you can generate tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars per slave, per year, through the exploitation of a trafficked sex slave. The average price it will cost you to purchase or acquire and transport that slave is around $2,000. That’s the immense profit side of that key thesis I articulate.

    Then there’s the no real risk side of the thesis. What are the penalties? Slavery is not legal anywhere in the world. But, depending on where you are in the world, the penalty ranges from little to none. There are many countries in which there’s no economic penalty stipulated in the law, or only a very small one. There are countries where there’s a very large economic penalty, but these crimes are almost never prosecuted and convicted. So the real penalty is still basically zip.  There are always provisions for incarceration, but if — and these are big “if’s” — if you get prosecuted, and if you get convicted, jail times are relatively short.

    Well, criminals, like the rest of us, are what an economist would call “rational economic agents.” And this is a very compelling economic opportunity. So as long as that reality prevails, individuals — rational economic agents — who lack any moral sensibility will flock to the opportunity of exploiting an individual as a slave in forced prostitution, in this case.

    So, now we know how the business works. What’s the actual business model? Well, people are acquired from a certain area through various means — deceit, fraud, coercion and whatnot. They are moved a distance near or far, and then coerced and forced — through violence, threat of violence, torture, starvation, humiliation, and rape — to engage in commercial sexual activity. That’s where the money center is.

    Are there vulnerable points in this business model that I very briefly described? Can we intervene at the point of acquisition, movement, or exploitation?

    Well, it’s too inexpensive to move people, it’s too easy, they’re almost always using legitimate documents now, so it’s very difficult to identify them, and if you try to cut off one route, well, they’re very practiced at redirecting somewhere else. Borders between countries tend to be porous and unguardable. Movement, I argue, is not the vulnerable section.

    What about acquisition? Well, there are 2.5 billion people in poverty, there are 30 million people who are displaced due to war or environmental disaster, there are hundreds of millions of people living in economies that are corroding or societies that are unsafe, corrupt, lawless, etc. Can we solve all those problems and intervene at acquisition? All those problems should be solved, but I don’t think we’re going to solve those in the near future. But this is where NGOs tend to focus. This is what makes obvious sense to anyone. All right, let’s solve poverty. Let’s deal with gender bias. Let’s deal with refugee status and all that, because that’s the low-hanging fruit intellectually.

    It’s much harder to analyze the business model of what I’ll get to next, which is the exploitation side. I argue yes, we need to deal with the acquisition, the supply-side forces, but this isn’t going to happen in the near term. Let’s be realists. We’re not going to solve poverty and bias against women tomorrow. Or even 10 years from now. Or even 50 years from now. What does that leave us with? It leaves us with the point of exploitation. Where the actual business is happening. And fortunately, there are vulnerabilities here.

    You’ve got brothels, hotels, parlors, street corners, apartments, clubs — these are the typical venues where individuals are exploited in commercial sex. Consumers come to these places in broad daylight — if I can track them down, anyone can — and make the purchases multiple times a day — globally, millions of times a day.

    There are vulnerabilities here that can be exploited, in that it’s occurring in relative daylight. It happens millions of times a day. The locations in which it happens are relatively fixed, and you can’t go too far underground because consumers aren’t going to follow you there. And other reasons why this is the vulnerable point, where if you intervene intelligently and carefully, you can not only liberate the slave, which means you also cut off all future cash flows, but you can gather the requisite evidence and information required to successfully prosecute and convict, which elevates the real risk.

    So there you are attacking profits and elevating risk, which is inverting that compelling formula we talked about. So this is the argument I make, based on understanding how it works, of what should be done, to more effectively respond.

    Now, other forms of slavery will be different: debt bondage in the brick kiln industry, forced labor in child soldiers, etc. Different business models, different economics, and different vulnerable points. Looking at each of them will yield the right response.

    You’ve proposed a think tank on labor exploitation. Why is creating a think tank for this issue important?

    Because each type of slavery requires a different answer, and because it’s a complex phenomenon that resides at the center of a whole host of issues relating to human rights, to global economics, to law, etc., I’ve argued and suggested that the best way to continue advancing knowledge and effective research and ultimately response to the phenomenon is to create a multidisciplinary think tank of individuals — economists, lawyers, sociologists, law enforcement, human rights, NGOs, etc. — who can bring their respective areas of expertise to this phenomenon to analyze it, and then to create a fully comprehensive suite of research and recommendations on how to respond effectively to each type of slavery in each region around the world.

    My suggestion was taken quite seriously by folks at Harvard and the Kennedy School of Government, and we’re setting the think tank up presently. The idea is to set up a multidisciplinary, world-class, Harvard-caliber research program on this issue.

    How has TED Fellowship impacted you and your cause?

    The TED Conference has helped in that for a couple of conferences in a row, they’ve had someone who’s talked about this issue or known about this issue. If I could offer a subtle critique of the TED Conference, I’d say that they’ve probably focused a bit on the sensational, but that’s important in terms of raising awareness, and that’s what TED talks can do.

    But at TED you also have a very invested and captive audience of very intelligent people. Really successful, intelligent people, who I think would certainly appreciate and benefit from more strategic or rigorous analysis and suggestions of what to do.

    I had conversations offline with a lot of people at TEDIndia who said, “Boy, we really wish we would have heard from you, because that’s real analysis. That’s a real argument. I know what to do now.” Long before me, though, Ruchira Gupta up in Delhi, who won the Clinton Global Citizen award last year for her work with slave trafficking in India, should be a TED speaker. She’s a remarkable, remarkable woman — brilliant and passionate and intelligent and analytical.

    Some of my other Fellows, people who had done very innovative things, created new products, responded to a problem in a new and innovative way. That’s exactly what TED is brilliant at. But they haven’t quite got it right with the human rights side, at least with slavery so far.

    How did you get involved with this issue?

    I worked at a refugee camp in Yugoslavia as an undergrad. The conditions in the camp were miserable.  I lost 18 pounds and heard countless tales of heartbreaking atrocities, some of which involved Serb soldiers who raided Bosnian villages, executed the men, rounded up the women and female children, and trafficked them to brothels across the region. It took me a few years to process these experiences. I was an investment banker in New York at Merrill Lynch, and then I set that work aside because I had this idea that, “Gosh, this is terrible, all these things are happening but I see very little real, good analysis” — and this was back in 2000, so you can only imagine back then there was really not much going on — “Maybe there’s a way for me to apply my background in a form that would be more useful to someone besides me and myself and my paycheck at Merrill Lynch.”

    So I started the campaign of self-funded research around the world. Very tentatively at first just trying to understand what’s going on, and the more I learned, the more people I met at NGOs of which there are obviously many extraordinary ones and people doing tremendous work, and they proved invaluable to me: their knowledge and access to the areas where I just couldn’t have gone otherwise.  The more I learned, the more I realized, “You know, I might be on to something here.”

    As I did more and more research and started to speak about what my kind of approach was, it caught the interest of people and politicians and lawmakers and whatnot. I was asked to testify in front of Congress in 2005, so five years after I started. Then I got the offer from Columbia Press for the three books, was asked to sit on a few boards, and really started picking things up in terms of my research and writing. Still of course doing other work on the side because this isn’t my career, but it’s something I’m passionate about.

    Besides speaking with police, lawyers, and judges, and confronting traffickers and slave owners, you’ve also interviewed more than 500 slaves. How do you go about doing this?

    I’ve never pretended to be interested in buying a slave. In terms of researching sex trafficking I’ve gone into venues and certainly pretended to the proprietor to be interested in a certain type of purchase, but then once speaking to someone, I said, “Look, this is who I am, I’m a researcher, I’d be interested to speak to you, but if you don’t feel comfortable that’s fine, I’ll turn around and walk out.” And nine times out of 10 that’s how it happens. One time out of 10 I have a short conversation, and sometimes a slightly longer one. Most of the long interviews are of course in shelters. And again that’s where NGOs are so invaluable to the kind of work that I and other researchers like Kevin Bales do. You can’t get the kind of information that is needed without those NGOs. But what I’ve really then focused on is understanding the business model and the economics. Because I think that’s where the answer is.

    Siddharth Kara interviewing bonded laborers in northern India

    But with other types of slavery it’s very different. When you’re researching child labor at carpet looms you’re going into clandestine looms and trying to get information as quickly as you can before the slave owner gets back. You know, people get killed. People have been killed. People I know have been killed doing that kind of work. Or severely injured.

    This is such a difficult issue to be immersed in all the time. How do you deal with coming face to face with these horrors?

    In the beginning when I started my research, Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves was a real mentor to me, and he’s certainly encountered a lot of slavery in his time as well. And he’s the first one who pointed out after some of my research trips, he said, “You know, you may be suffering from PTSD. I certainly did after some of my research.”

    I find that working helps. Like, sitting down and running my numbers. Or writing. Editing, running some numbers in a spreadsheet. Kind of diving into that minutia helps, believe it or not. Using that other side of your brain that doesn’t store all these dark memories and encounters. Other things, simple stuff like going to the movies, I really enjoy SCUBA, so I do that now and then, all the time I can get with my wife. That’s always rejuvenating.

    Are there reasons to be optimistic about this issue?

    I hope I didn’t sound too critical a note on the current state of the movement and the people involved in it. I do get a little frustrated at times at what appears to be, to me, the focus on sensationalism and careerism and kind of self-perpetuation. But in general there are certainly several exceedingly dedicated, wonderful people who have taught me a lot.

    In terms of my own impressions of where this movement is going, it can be sometimes intimidating and a little overwhelming to face these powerful forces of human cruelty, and it’s easy to understand how people who work on this every day get very passionate and angry. And they need that to fuel the work they do and to fight back against these powerful forces.

    But I am optimistic that a growing population of informed and dedicated and intelligent activists and thinkers at higher and higher scholarly levels can catalyze a social movement that will make a major dent in this issue. I do sincerely see that starting to happen and have reason for an intense amount of optimism as a result.