TED2015

Noy Thrupkaew: Human trafficking is all around you. This is how it works

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Behind the everyday bargains we all love -- the $10 manicure, the unlimited shrimp buffet -- is a hidden world of forced labor to keep those prices at rock bottom. Noy Thrupkaew investigates human trafficking – which flourishes in the US and Europe, as well as developing countries – and shows us the human faces behind the exploited labor that feeds global consumers.

- Global journalist
Noy Thrupkaew reports on human trafficking and the economics of exploitation through the lens of labor rights. Full bio

About 10 years ago, I went through
a little bit of a hard time.
00:12
So I decided to go see a therapist.
00:15
I had been seeing her for a few months,
when she looked at me one day and said,
00:18
"Who actually raised you
until you were three?"
00:22
Seemed like a weird question.
I said, "My parents."
00:26
And she said, "I don't think
that's actually the case;
00:29
because if it were,
00:32
we'd be dealing with things that are
far more complicated than just this."
00:34
It sounded like the setup to a joke,
but I knew she was serious.
00:38
Because when I first started seeing her,
00:42
I was trying to be
the funniest person in the room.
00:45
And I would try and crack these jokes,
but she caught on to me really quickly,
00:47
and whenever I tried to make a joke,
she would look at me and say,
00:51
"That is actually really sad."
00:55
(Laughter)
00:58
It's terrible.
01:00
So I knew I had to be serious,
and I asked my parents
01:02
who had actually raised me
until I was three?
01:05
And to my surprise, they said
01:08
my primary caregiver had been
a distant relative of the family.
01:10
I had called her my auntie.
01:15
I remember my auntie so clearly,
01:18
it felt like she had been part of my life
when I was much older.
01:20
I remember the thick, straight hair,
01:24
and how it would come around
me like a curtain
01:26
when she bent to pick me up;
01:28
her soft, southern Thai accent;
01:30
the way I would cling to her,
01:32
even if she just wanted to go
to the bathroom
01:34
or get something to eat.
01:36
I loved her, but [with] the ferocity
that a child has sometimes
01:38
before she understands that love
also requires letting go.
01:42
But my clearest and sharpest
memory of my auntie,
01:48
is also one of my first
memories of life at all.
01:52
I remember her being beaten and slapped
by another member of my family.
01:56
I remember screaming hysterically
and wanting it to stop,
02:01
as I did every single time it happened,
02:04
for things as minor as wanting
to go out with her friends,
02:07
or being a little late.
02:09
I became so hysterical over her treatment,
02:12
that eventually, she was just
beaten behind closed doors.
02:15
Things got so bad for her
that eventually she ran away.
02:21
As an adult, I learned later
02:25
that she had been just 19
when she was brought over from Thailand
02:26
to the States to care for me,
on a tourist visa.
02:31
She wound up working
in Illinois for a time,
02:35
before eventually returning to Thailand,
02:37
which is where I ran into her again,
at a political rally in Bangkok.
02:40
I clung to her again, as I had
when I was a child,
02:44
and I let go, and then
I promised that I would call.
02:48
I never did, though.
02:52
Because I was afraid if I said
everything that she meant to me --
02:55
that I owed perhaps the best parts
of who I became to her care,
03:00
and that the words "I'm sorry"
were like a thimble
03:04
to bail out all the guilt
and shame and rage I felt
03:08
over everything she had endured
to care for me for as long as she had --
03:12
I thought if I said those words to her,
I would never stop crying again.
03:18
Because she had saved me.
03:24
And I had not saved her.
03:26
I'm a journalist, and I've been writing
and researching human trafficking
03:32
for the past eight years or so,
03:36
and even so, I never put together
this personal story
03:38
with my professional life
until pretty recently.
03:42
I think this profound disconnect
actually symbolizes
03:46
most of our understanding
about human trafficking.
03:49
Because human trafficking is far more
prevalent, complex and close to home
03:52
than most of us realize.
03:58
I spent time in jails and brothels,
04:01
interviewed hundreds of survivors
and law enforcement, NGO workers.
04:03
And when I think about what we've done
about human trafficking,
04:07
I am hugely disappointed.
04:10
Partly because we don't even talk
about the problem right at all.
04:13
When I say "human trafficking,"
04:18
most of you probably don't think
about someone like my auntie.
04:19
You probably think
about a young girl or woman,
04:23
who's been brutally forced
into prostitution by a violent pimp.
04:26
That is real suffering,
and that is a real story.
04:30
That story makes me angry
04:35
for far more than just the reality
of that situation, though.
04:36
As a journalist, I really care about how
we relate to each other through language,
04:41
and the way we tell that story,
with all the gory, violent detail,
04:46
the salacious aspects -- I call that
"look at her scars" journalism.
04:49
We use that story to convince ourselves
04:55
that human trafficking is a bad man
doing a bad thing to an innocent girl.
04:57
That story lets us off the hook.
05:03
It takes away all the societal context
that we might be indicted for,
05:05
for the structural inequality,
or the poverty,
05:08
or the barriers to migration.
05:11
We let ourselves think
05:13
that human trafficking is only
about forced prostitution,
05:14
when in reality,
05:18
human trafficking is embedded
in our everyday lives.
05:19
Let me show you what I mean.
05:24
Forced prostitution accounts for
22 percent of human trafficking.
05:26
Ten percent is in state-
imposed forced labor.
05:31
but a whopping 68 percent
is for the purpose of creating the goods
05:35
and delivering the services
that most of us rely on every day,
05:39
in sectors like agricultural work,
domestic work and construction.
05:44
That is food and care and shelter.
05:49
And somehow, these most essential workers
05:52
are also among the world's most underpaid
and exploited today.
05:55
Human trafficking is the use
of force, fraud or coercion
06:01
to compel another person's labor.
06:05
And it's found in cotton fields,
and coltan mines,
06:08
and even car washes in Norway and England.
06:11
It's found in U.S. military
bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
06:14
It's found in Thailand's fishing industry.
06:17
That country has become the largest
exporter of shrimp in the world.
06:20
But what are the circumstances
06:25
behind all that cheap
and plentiful shrimp?
06:27
Thai military were caught selling
Burmese and Cambodian migrants
06:31
onto fishing boats.
06:35
Those fishing boats were taken out,
the men put to work,
06:37
and they were thrown overboard
if they made the mistake of falling sick,
06:40
or trying to resist their treatment.
06:44
Those fish were then used to feed shrimp,
06:47
The shrimp were then sold
to four major global retailers:
06:49
Costco, Tesco, Walmart and Carrefour.
06:54
Human trafficking is found
on a smaller scale than just that,
07:01
and in places you would
never even imagine.
07:04
Traffickers have forced young people
to drive ice cream trucks,
07:06
or to sing in touring boys' choirs.
07:09
Trafficking has even been found
in a hair braiding salon in New Jersey.
07:12
The scheme in that case was incredible.
07:16
The traffickers found young families
who were from Ghana and Togo,
07:19
and they told these families that
"your daughters are going to get
07:25
a fine education in the United States."
07:28
They then located winners
of the green card lottery,
07:31
and they told them, "We'll help you out.
07:34
We'll get you a plane ticket.
We'll pay your fees.
07:37
All you have to do is take
this young girl with you,
07:40
say that she's your sister or your spouse.
07:43
Once everyone arrived in New Jersey,
the young girls were taken away,
07:46
and put to work for 14-hour days,
07:50
seven days a week, for five years.
07:52
They made their traffickers
nearly four million dollars.
07:55
This is a huge problem.
08:02
So what have we done about it?
08:04
We've mostly turned
to the criminal justice system.
08:06
But keep in mind, most victims of human
trafficking are poor and marginalized.
08:10
They're migrants, people of color.
08:14
Sometimes they're in the sex trade.
08:16
And for populations like these,
08:18
the criminal justice system is
too often part of the problem,
08:20
rather than the solution.
08:23
In study after study, in countries ranging
from Bangladesh to the United States,
08:26
between 20 and 60 percent of the people
in the sex trade who were surveyed
08:30
said that they had been raped or assaulted
by the police in the past year alone.
08:35
People in prostitution, including people
who have been trafficked into it,
08:42
regularly receive multiple
convictions for prostitution.
08:45
Having that criminal record makes it
so much more difficult
08:49
to leave poverty, leave abuse,
or leave prostitution,
08:52
if that person so desires.
08:56
Workers outside of the sex sector --
09:00
if they try and resist their treatment,
they risk deportation.
09:02
In case after case I've studied,
employers have no problem
09:06
calling on law enforcement
to try and threaten or deport
09:10
their striking trafficked workers.
09:13
If those workers run away,
09:16
they risk becoming part of the great mass
of undocumented workers
09:18
who are also subject to the whims
of law enforcement if they're caught.
09:23
Law enforcement is supposed to identify
victims and prosecute traffickers.
09:29
But out of an estimated 21 million victims
of human trafficking in the world,
09:35
they have helped and identified
fewer than 50,000 people.
09:40
That's like comparing
09:45
the population of the world
to the population of Los Angeles,
09:47
proportionally speaking.
09:51
As for convictions, out of an estimated
5,700 convictions in 2013,
09:53
fewer than 500 were for labor trafficking.
10:00
Keep in mind that labor trafficking
10:03
accounts for 68 percent
of all trafficking,
10:05
but fewer than 10 percent
of the convictions.
10:08
I've heard one expert say that trafficking
happens where need meets greed.
10:13
I'd like to add one more element to that.
10:19
Trafficking happens in sectors where
workers are excluded from protections,
10:22
and denied the right to organize.
10:26
Trafficking doesn't happen in a vacuum.
10:29
It happens in systematically
degraded work environments.
10:32
You might be thinking,
10:37
oh, she's talking about failed states,
or war-torn states, or --
10:38
I'm actually talking
about the United States.
10:41
Let me tell you what that looks like.
10:44
I spent many months researching
a trafficking case called Global Horizons,
10:47
involving hundreds of Thai farm workers.
10:50
They were sent all over the States,
to work in Hawaii pineapple plantations,
10:53
and Washington apple orchards,
and anywhere the work was needed.
10:56
They were promised three years
of solid agricultural work.
11:00
So they made a calculated risk.
11:04
They sold their land, they sold
their wives' jewelry,
11:06
to make thousands in recruitment fees
for this company, Global Horizons.
11:09
But once they were brought over,
11:14
their passports were confiscated.
11:16
Some of the men were beaten
and held at gunpoint.
11:18
They worked so hard
they fainted in the fields.
11:21
This case hit me so hard.
11:25
After I came back home,
11:29
I was wandering through the grocery store,
and I froze in the produce department.
11:31
I was remembering the over-the-top meals
the Global Horizons survivors
11:36
would make for me every time
I showed up to interview them.
11:39
They finished one meal with this plate
of perfect, long-stemmed strawberries,
11:44
and as they handed them to me, they said,
11:49
"Aren't these the kind of strawberries
you eat with somebody special
11:51
in the States?
11:55
And don't they taste so much better
11:56
when you know the people
whose hands picked them for you?"
11:58
As I stood in that grocery store weeks
later, I realized I had no idea
12:05
of who to thank for this plenty,
12:10
and no idea of how
they were being treated.
12:12
So, like the journalist I am, I started
digging into the agricultural sector.
12:15
And I found there are too many fields,
and too few labor inspectors.
12:20
I found multiple layers
of plausible deniability
12:24
between grower and distributor
and processor, and God knows who else.
12:27
The Global Horizons survivors had been
brought to the States
12:32
on a temporary guest worker program.
12:35
That guest worker program
ties a person's legal status
12:38
to his or her employer,
12:42
and denies that worker
the right to organize.
12:44
Mind you, none of what I am describing
about this agricultural sector
12:48
or the guest worker program
is actually human trafficking.
12:52
It is merely what we find
legally tolerable.
12:57
And I would argue this is
fertile ground for exploitation.
13:02
And all of this had been hidden to me,
before I had tried to understand it.
13:06
I wasn't the only person
grappling with these issues.
13:11
Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay,
13:14
is one of the biggest anti-trafficking
philanthropists in the world.
13:17
And even he wound up accidentally
investing nearly 10 million dollars
13:21
in the pineapple plantation cited
as having the worst working conditions
13:26
in that Global Horizons case.
13:30
When he found out, he and his wife
were shocked and horrified,
13:34
and they wound up writing
an op-ed for a newspaper,
13:38
saying that it was up to all of us
to learn everything we can
13:40
about the labor and supply chains
of the products that we support.
13:44
I totally agree.
13:49
What would happen
if each one of us decided
13:52
that we are no longer going
to support companies
13:55
if they don't eliminate exploitation
from their labor and supply chains?
13:58
If we demanded laws calling for the same?
14:02
If all the CEOs out there decided
14:05
that they were going to go through
their businesses and say, "no more"?
14:08
If we ended recruitment fees
for migrant workers?
14:12
If we decided that guest workers
should have the right to organize
14:16
without fear of retaliation?
14:19
These would be decisions heard
around the world.
14:21
This isn't a matter of buying
a fair-trade peach
14:26
and calling it a day, buying
a guilt-free zone with your money.
14:28
That's not how it works.
14:33
This is the decision to change
a system that is broken,
14:35
and that we have unwittingly but willingly
14:39
allowed ourselves to profit from
and benefit from for too long.
14:42
We often dwell on human trafficking
survivors' victimization.
14:49
But that is not my experience of them.
14:54
Over all the years that I've
been talking to them,
14:57
they have taught me that we are
more than our worst days.
14:59
Each one of us is more
than what we have lived through.
15:03
Especially trafficking survivors.
15:08
These people were the most resourceful
and resilient and responsible
15:10
in their communities.
15:14
They were the people that you
would take a gamble on.
15:15
You'd say, I'm gong to sell my rings,
because I have the chance
15:18
to send you off to a better future.
15:22
They were the emissaries of hope.
15:25
These survivors don't need saving.
15:29
They need solidarity,
because they're behind
15:32
some of the most exciting
social justice movements out there today.
15:35
The nannies and housekeepers
who marched with their families
15:40
and their employers' families --
15:43
their activism got us
an international treaty
15:45
on domestic workers' rights.
15:48
The Nepali women who were trafficked
into the sex trade --
15:51
they came together, and they decided
15:55
that they were going to make the world's
first anti-trafficking organization
15:56
actually headed and run
by trafficking survivors themselves.
16:00
These Indian shipyard workers
were trafficked
16:05
to do post-Hurricane Katrina
reconstruction.
16:08
They were threatened with deportation,
but they broke out of their work compound
16:11
and they marched from New Orleans
to Washington, D.C.,
16:15
to protest labor exploitation.
16:18
They cofounded an organization called
the National Guest Worker Alliance,
16:21
and through this organization,
they have wound up helping other workers
16:25
bring to light exploitation
and abuses in supply chains
16:29
in Walmart and Hershey's factories.
16:34
And although the Department
of Justice declined to take their case,
16:35
a team of civil rights lawyers won
the first of a dozen civil suits
16:40
this February, and got
their clients 14 million dollars.
16:44
These survivors are fighting
for people they don't even know yet,
16:50
other workers, and for the possibility
of a just world for all of us.
16:54
This is our chance to do the same.
16:59
This is our chance to make the decision
17:02
that tells us who we are,
as a people and as a society;
17:04
that our prosperity is no
longer prosperity,
17:08
as long as it is pinned
to other people's pain;
17:11
that our lives are
inextricably woven together;
17:15
and that we have the power
to make a different choice.
17:19
I was so reluctant to share
my story of my auntie with you.
17:26
Before I started this TED process
and climbed up on this stage,
17:31
I had told literally a handful
of people about it,
17:34
because, like many a journalist,
17:37
I am far more interested in learning
about your stories
17:39
than sharing much,
if anything, about my own.
17:42
I also haven't done my journalistic
due diligence on this.
17:47
I haven't issued my mountains
of document requests,
17:50
and interviewed everyone and their mother,
17:52
and I haven't found my auntie yet.
17:54
I don't know her story
of what happened, and of her life now.
17:57
The story as I've told it to you
is messy and unfinished.
18:02
But I think it mirrors the messy
and unfinished situation we're all in,
18:06
when it comes to human trafficking.
18:11
We are all implicated in this problem.
18:14
But that means we are all
also part of its solution.
18:18
Figuring out how to build a more
just world is our work to do,
18:24
and our story to tell.
18:28
So let us tell it the way
we should have done,
18:31
from the very beginning.
18:33
Let us tell this story together.
18:35
Thank you so much.
18:39
(Applause)
18:40

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About the Speaker:

Noy Thrupkaew - Global journalist
Noy Thrupkaew reports on human trafficking and the economics of exploitation through the lens of labor rights.

Why you should listen

Noy Thrupkaew writes on global issues on a local scale. The focus of her studies (and the subject of her forthcoming book) is human trafficking and the exploitative economic systems and corrupt officials behind it. She is a keen critic of the role of anti-trafficking organizations in the struggle against it, calling for long-range approaches that go beyond mere prohibition.

As an independent journalist, Thrupkaew has written for a wide variety of outlets including The Nation, National Geographic and The New York Times.

More profile about the speaker
Noy Thrupkaew | Speaker | TED.com