Breaking the Chain

An Interview with Andrew and Grace Forrest

Octavian Report: How did you first become aware of modern slavery as a problem and how did the Walk Free Foundation come into existence?

Andrew Forrest: We came across slavery through child sex slavery — initially through my daughter Grace's work at a set of orphanages in Nepal, in Katmandu. When Grace and a group of schools went to Katmandu to work in orphanages, my family did some intelligence work to ensure that these kids were going to be safe. And a question mark began to appear about where they were working.

When Grace returned, she returned with really strong relationships with those little kids. And the intelligence continued and it led us to believe that actually the orphanage where Grace worked was very suspect and more than likely to be a trafficker of children as opposed to a protector of children. When Grace insisted the family go back there, we had all those worst suspicions confirmed. Children were being trafficked out of Nepal through India. Nepalese children bring a higher price in the pedophile markets of the Middle East. We found that situation extremely disturbing and it began to polarize this family towards fighting modern slavery and maybe pulling much more out of business.

Before we did that, we checked to see if our own hands were clean in business. I have quite a large company, which I founded. I have three to three-and-a-half-thousand suppliers. And we discovered really horrific forced labor, which is a subset of modern slavery, in supply chains making goods for us and for companies throughout North America and Europe. So they've all got slavery in their supply chains. That for me was in slavery in my professional life, slavery in my personal life. Grace at that stage had committed her own career to fighting slavery. And so we thought, “Let’s do this as a family and really go after it.”

OR: Can you give a thumbnail picture of the scale of this problem, both on the trafficking and economic sides?

Andrew Forrest: There are some 40.3 million people caught, as we speak, in modern slavery. And the measurement of slavery is key to its resolution. Without an agreement around the numbers, you can drive a truck through the argument as to why you should do nothing about or you should do something about slavery. But we formed a joint venture with the International Labour Organization — the labor chapter of the United Nations; I think it's their first-ever joint venture with an NGO — and we settled on the numbers through combined and global research done by some of the best academicians in the world. Our efforts also surveyed an unprecedented level of people from all over the world, and that led us to this number 40.3 million. About two-thirds of that are women and and girls.

Grace Forrest: Seventy-one percent of all slavery victims are women and girls. 15.4 million of those are in forced marriages and 16 million people are in the private economy. Women and girls are disproportionately affected by all forms of slavery but one — that's across forced labor, domestic servitude, forced marriage, commercial sexual exploitation. The only area where men are more exploited is state-imposed forced labor.

OR: What is currently the state of the art in enforcement and dealing with the socioeconomic roots of the problem?

Andrew Forrest: The Bali Process is state of the art as far as government and business collaboration. Only that force is powerful enough to defeat modern slavery. That is a collaboration that takes place once a year. All 45 countries of the Indo-Pacific are represented at an administrative level and at a very senior business person level. So business and government come together to really hash out how to end modern slavery, in that massive region of the world, which has some 60 percent of the world’s people.

OR: What are particularly notable successes that your own organization has scored?

Andrew Forrest: I think the biggest one, which is what will eventually lead to the end of slavery, is knowledge. To have the world understand that modern slavery exists. To even accept the words “modern slavery” into the common lexicon of human language. To be able to have governments now motivated to either make a decision to fight slavery or to tolerate it. But they cannot ignore it. If they tolerate it, then they start immediately getting picked apart not only by organizations like ours but also by global investors like me, who will pull capital out of countries who are not actively fighting modern slavery and put capital into countries that are. Companies who take an active human rights stand become much better investments than those who don't.

OR: Why do you think that this massive problem has gone relatively unnoticed until relatively recently?

Andrew Forrest: Because it was hidden. When slavery was outlawed, it didn't stop it, it basically de-regulated it. It scurried off into the dark corners of the global community and propagated. Now it's become such a big issue that it's seen by many political leaders as the human rights issue of our time. And with our ability now to shine a light on it, we can say, “If we can measure it, we can manage it. If we can manage it, we can eliminate it.”

OR:How do you shut off the forces driving modern slavery?

Andrew Forrest: It comes down to correcting one of the negative essences of human nature: our ability to exploit our fellow man. And whether that happens sexually or by forced labor or crime of opportunity through commerce, that needs to be corrected in order to protect the very existence of man. If we don't correct that, I think the future of society is going to look worse and worse.

Grace Forrest: I would add that modern slavery is both a symptom and a cause of extreme vulnerability. It occurs within supply chains within the grasp of business. That's something we can do something about. But it also occurs directly as a result of vulnerability due to distressed migration and conflict. Refugee populations are exceedingly vulnerable to modern slavery. So are migrant populations, such as domestic workers that go to a number countries to feed the massive demand for them in the Middle East. Modern slavery disproportionately affects the world’s most vulnerable people. And we need to be mindful of the fact that while it can seem like a problem that's far away, modern slavery is very much a first-world problem. There are some forms of slavery which we can't particularly work on as a consumer in the United States, but there are many that we can. At our fingertips, we have consumer responsibility and accountability to know that the top five products being imported into the U.S. are slavery-free.