It was a humid 95 degrees in Yangon. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck as I sat cross-legged on the floor of a little shack with a small fan working overtime in the corner. Across from me sat a weather-beaten boy with dark scars on his small hands and arms. Lured from home by a recruiter’s false promise of a good job paying about $60 USD per month on the coast, he instead found himself sold to a ship captain, trapped. On a fishing boat in the middle of the sea, no land in sight in any direction, the captain told him and the rest of the crew that they were welcome to jump overboard if they wanted to leave.
For almost two years, he worked 20 hours a day, was never paid, and imagined ending his life — the only exit he could see. As I sought to understand how and why he got onto that boat in the first place, I started by asking why the recruiter’s job offer was appealing. He replied, “I never met my father but I heard he was a fisherman. I didn’t know how to swim but I thought I could learn to fish like him.” Then his voice softened and he looked away, “And I always wanted to see the ocean.” Those words cut me.
This boy had a dream, a pretty simple one. How many of us have longed for that chance to travel, to see something new, to see the ocean? But his dream was taken away by a recruiter exploiting his poverty, his family’s perpetual debt to predatory moneylenders. It was taken away by sea captains stealing men’s labor to improve profit margins in the fishing business. It was taken away by an entire system of exploitation built on the backs of the most vulnerable.
Make no mistake: this boy’s experience is not an isolated incident. It’s just one example of an epidemic of desperation. There are millions like him caught up in systems of modern day slavery.
These systems of modern slavery involve global supply chains, demand for cheap labor, vulnerable populations, corruption. The systems include fishing boats and garment factories, palm oil plantations and sugar cane — and an estimated $150 billion USD in illegal profits to traffickers. It’s complicated, it’s messy.
But as overwhelming as it might seem, it’s not hopeless. It’s solvable with business leaders committed to assessing and mitigating risk in their supply chains. It’s solvable with tech companies and data scientists using new tools to gather and analyze trafficking data. It’s solvable with colleges and universities integrating discussion and debate about modern slavery into economics, social justice, and business courses and practicums.
That’s why I feel energized when I think about the challenges we face in our economic system. An issue like this doesn’t require one perfect solution. It requires all of us in our different fields and companies doing our part to address vulnerability and reduce exploitation. And I’m obsessed with the idea of starting a series of hackathons hosted at universities to connect ambitious students with a range of skills in fields ranging from data science and machine learning, to programming, database development, and real-world social impact projects they can sink their teeth into.
I’ll never forget that boy in Myanmar and his simple wish to get out of that one-room house in an alley to nowhere. His simple wish to go see the ocean.
Natalya Wallin, Vice President of Strategic Engagement at the Global Fund to Modern End Slavery.
Natalya is an IVY Member (DC). Connect and collaborate with her here, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @NatalyaWallin. If you are interested brainstorming a series of hackathons for university students, please contact Natalya via LinkedIn here.