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Q&A with Professor Siddharth Kara

On 31 January, 2018, UNHS interns spoke with Professor Siddharth Kara as part of the “See Me, Free Me” campaign to raise awareness of modern slavery in Scotland. Professor Kara is a leading expert in human trafficking and contemporary slavery and he is a senior fellow and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a senior fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery (2009); Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia (2012); and Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective (2017) all from Columbia University Press. Here is what Professor Kara had to say:

U.N. House Scotland is hosting the “See Me, Free Me” conference this March to bring to the attention of the Scottish public to the plight of the estimated 40.3 million people who were victims of modern slavery at any given time in 2016. According to the U.N. and International Labour Organisation, women, men and children are exploited for forced labour, commercial sex, and domestic work in all corners of the world.

Although many think that this issue affects only distant countries, there were 150 potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking recorded in Scotland in 2016 alone, but Home Office estimates put the actual number much higher.

Question: What are the factors and conditions that promote modern slavery and exploitation in all corners of the world?

Answer: Poverty, socio-economic instability, military or environmental catastrophe, lawlessness, and other factors promote slavery. The globalisation of competition is another factor. Think of it in terms of the seafood sector of Thailand. Thailand is one of the top exporters of seafood products to the world, and they are also in price competition with all those other exporters, hence there is immense pressure to keep costs down. Labor is almost always the most pliable component to a company’s cost structure. The industry as it exists now almost requires labor exploitation to compete. When you add in the fact that the Gulf of Thailand is overfished, ships have to spend more time at sea, and time is money. Globalisation does, in part, lead to these outcomes, and the system is not sustainable in the long term unless it addresses this underbelly of severe exploitation catalyzed in many cases by the global competitive pressures it creates.

Q: Where do you see the business of slavery going as inequality rises? Will further economic development (and hopefully more access to markets, education, etc.) stymie supply side forces that drive vulnerable people into situations of extreme exploitation?

A: When we think about inequality, it will always be the case that as long as income inequality worsens it will further exacerbate supply side forces of slavery. Inequality also relates to female gender and caste identity. So long as those inequalities persist and widen, they will also remain sources of vulnerability to any number of forms of exploitation, including slavery.

Economic development is not necessarily the same thing as equitable participation in the global economy. The way to think about it is there is this significant subclass of humanity who exist outside the global economy and they are the ones most subject to exploitation. To the extent this subclass can receive increased opportunities, rights, education, and participation in the global economy, this can help provide reasonable alternatives to the offers made by human traffickers.

Q: Contemporary slavery can be seen as a very profitable business: the ILO estimated that labour exploitation in 2014 produced a profit of $150 billion Do you think advances in Artificial Intelligence/ Machine Learning (AI/ML) and robotics will affect the demand-side forces that drive the crime, for example in labor exploitation?

A: My suspicion is that most of the forced labor we see in the world today takes place in sectors where advances in AI wouldn’t apply. These are traditionally very low margin businesses, which is why there is a drive to decrease costs to compete. There’s certain things you can’t mechanize or replace with AI, least of all penny-wage human labor, which much of the global economy thrives on, at least for the foreseeable future.

Even in the developed world, for example the agricultural sector in California or the case of immense construction projects in the Middle East, there is still space for that penny wage or low wage labor to be exploited. I’m not sure AI and robotics will ever replace low wage labor in sectors like these around the world.

Q: The crime of modern day slavery has been addressed across multiple platforms like governments and civil society organisations. Have corporations started to become more active and aware of labor exploitation and modern slavery? Or is the issue still being approached mostly from a state (government) and activist (NGOs) level?

A: Industry is definitely becoming active on these issues, especially on child labor. But much more work needs to be done. There is still no reliable certification system to ensure global supply chains are not tainted. I suspect the landscape will change when we’re able to pass legislation that creates criminal penalties to directors or officers of a company for failure to remove forced labor or child labor from their supply chains. It will have to be done country by country, so that there are enforcement mechanisms everywhere, ensuring that supply chains all over the world are free of exploitation.

Q: Brexit potentially will result in a decrease in exchange of information from law enforcement agencies between the United Kingdom and the European Union. In your opinion, do you think Brexit will affect the U.K.'s ability to respond, prevent, and prosecute human trafficking?

A: It’s hard to say. I suspect that some efforts will be made to uphold the kind of partnerships and mechanisms on human trafficking that the U.K. currently participates in across the EU. In that scenario, Brexit should not affect the U.K.’s ability to deal with human trafficking too much. But, that is a pretty big if. You could also find yourself in a situation where lack of integration with EU mechanisms prevents U.K. from responding adequately to human trafficking.

Q: Technology has dramatically evolved the crime of trafficking in human beings. Much of sex trafficking, for instance, moved from streets to online platforms. A U.S. classified ads website called was accused and reprimanded in the U.S. Congress of facilitating sex trafficking of children and adults within the site. A court decision in 2017 ordered Backpage to close their adult section, and resulted in other legislative measures. With the closure of the adult section of Backpage, what happens with that activity? Where would now see that activity? Where should we be looking next?

A: Actually you don't have to look too much past Backpage. The adult section closed down, but the content is all just scattered across different parts of the site now. Backpage has traditionally been protected by the Communications Decency Act, a section of which exculpated ISPs from content posted by third parties. There is legislation in the U.S. right now that would carve out commercial sex advertisements from this protection.

Q: Many NGOs fighting sex trafficking and supporting victims call for the introduction of the so-called Nordic Model. First introduced in Scandinavian countries, this model decriminalises all those who are prostituted, provides support services to help them exit, and makes buying people for sex a criminal offence in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking. If criminalising the purchase of sex is one of the best solutions to decreasing the demand-side of the crime, what is the biggest obstacle to making this happen?

A: For example, in countries like the US and the UK, one of the biggest obstacles is ignorance of the harmful realities of the commercial sex sector. Many of those in the position to change the policy could also be buyers themselves. The Nordic Model is in my mind the most effective model for eliminating sex trafficking. I believe it’s only a matter of time before other countries succeed in implementing similar legislation.

UNHS would like to thank Professor Kara for speaking with us and for supporting the See Me, Free Me initiative. His knowledge and expertise is invaluable for raising awareness of this critical issue.

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