The Mekong Club Raises Awareness on Modern Slavery in North America


The Mekong Club CEO Matt Friedman just completed his advocacy road trip across the United States (and Vancouver, Canada), where he travelled for 70 days – covering over 10,200 miles – to reach out, educate and inform audiences about modern slavery.

Friedman, who is an international expert on modern slavery with over 25 years of experience in the field, kicked off his trip on June 17, 2016, and visited 27 cities, hosting 112 presentations on modern slavery. The vision for this trip was simple: to create a modern day abolitionist movement. We wanted to wake people up to this heinous crime, which is arguably the greatest human rights violation of our time.

In our CEO’s words: “For the world to get involved in addressing the problem, they first need to understand it. For this to happen, we need to do a better job of educating businesses, schools, churches and the general public. If communities don’t know about a problem, they will not do anything to help fight it. With this in mind, general awareness is so important. This is what we tried to do on this trip – educate, inform and inspire.”

So with that vision in mind, Friedman set out to reach as many stakeholders as possible. He presented to leading global companies, tech giants, international banks, several rotary clubs, government bodies, universities, faith-based groups, and at private events. The response from these groups has been extremely positive – there is much willingness to help address this problem.

Raising awareness

Many people learned about the issue of modern slavery for the first time. They often asked the question: “How could this problem be so prevalent without me having heard about it before?” Part of the reason is that the information that is available through the media and the NGO world has tended to focus on case descriptions, without ever really outlining the size and magnitude of the problem. Globally, 45.8 million men, women and children are currently in situations of modern-day slavery. In fact, there are more people trapped and exploited today than at any other time in history. When this figure is used, most people don’t know what to say.

There is also confusion about the relationship between human trafficking and slavery. Many people feel that human trafficking is a far-away phenomenon related to women and girls being tricked into prostitution somewhere in Asia. The association with the word slavery and the fact it also happens in the United States is something completely new to them. In fact, the idea that slavery still exists in any form comes as a complete shock.

The Private Sector

EDM ADVOCACYFurther confusion lies in understanding what forms of modern slavery are most prevalent. While most people think that most human trafficking feeds the sex industry, one major U.N. study reported that forced prostitution represents only about 25 percent of the total slavery cases. The remaining 75 percent fall under the heading “forced labour.” Out of this figure, about 60 percent of the victims are working in manufacturing supply chains for little or no pay. With this in mind, a percentage of the products we wear, eat and utilise are produced using modern slavery.

The presentations Matt has given to private corporations offered insights on the business risks that slavery poses to corporations, the power of public perception, the future of legislation and the right approach to protect a company’s supply chain and lock slavery out of its industry.

A collaborative, positive approach in engaging companies and guiding them to lead the fight against slavery is the core of The Mekong Club’s mission. We are a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to engaging, inspiring and supporting the private sector to join the fight against modern slavery. The Mekong Club provides a forum for companies to come together to discuss the issues, challenges and solutions in a positive, supportive and safe environment. Specifically, companies from four key industries come together to meet regularly and address the issue: Banking and Finance, Footwear and Apparel, Retail, and Hospitality. Each of these groups meets regularly to identify needs/gaps, provide recommendations, and work together as a group to respond to the problem.

This summer’s road trip was committed to sharing our approach with the business world at a time when businesses are ideally positioned to lead and reduce slavery in their industries. The good news is that opportunities for businesses to get involved are increasing.

“If every one of us did at least one thing this would add up to something great.”

During the trip, people often asked the question: “What can I do to help address the problem?”

A simple list of activities that require little effort includes:

Learn and Share: Continue to learn about today’s slavery and help educate your friends and family. Consult the Internet for up-to-date information on this topic. Every person reached potentially adds another soldier to the fight. For our modern-day abolitionist movement to take hold, raising awareness must be a high priority. Helping to get the word out is a heroic activity

Sponsor an Event: Many schools, corporations, faith-based groups and clubs have stepped up to create awareness. You can invite a speaker for a presentation or a panel discussion. You can find willing speakers knowledgeable on this topic. Such innovative approaches not only foster awareness, but uniquely motivate people and raise money for the cause

Show a Film: There are excellent, compelling films concerning human trafficking/slavery. Consider showing one of these films to your company, school, club, or within another community event

Become a Responsible Consumer: Before buying a name-brand item, go online to see if the company has a policy statement about human slavery. If so, send a quick email to congratulate them. If not, send an email request that they post such a statement. These interactions should be positive. A company under attack often shuts down. Encouragement can open up a company and get them to take the steps needed

Fundraising: Raising money for the cause ranks as necessary heroism. Even small amounts to the right organisation can make a tremendous difference in the life of a trafficked person. Funds can be raised through an endurance event, a film showing, a silent auction, and more

Donate: Donate to trustworthy organisations. If you want to donate to The Mekong Club, please follow this link

Volunteer: Volunteering is a great way to contribute. You can work at a local NGO office or from home. To identify an organisation, go online and review options

Final observations

– Many donors are seeking to clarify what to do next. With the impact of the human trafficking response being so low (0.1 percent of the global victims being helped), they are looking for new directions. The private sector is considered a viable option

– There is a desperate need for more leadership in addressing the issue, especially in the United States

– General awareness about the topic is low in every category (business, business coalition, rotary, school, faith-based and the general public). More standardized information is needed for each group

– There is no repository for basic information and data on this topic anywhere

 – While there are many organisations “doing things,” few of them are working together. This is a missed opportunity

Seventy days, 27 cities and 112 meetings later, this incredible road trip has come to an end. An important network has been formed with individuals and companies of all sectors that are stepping up and are willing to address the fight. The Mekong Club looks forward to engaging with those companies that have understood the urgency of ending modern slavery

Thanks to each and every one who opened their doors to our mission and made it a success!