Today, nearly two decades into the 21st century, there are more people trapped in slavery than at any other time in human history. It’s a shocking but not widely appreciated fact, and the fight against this scourge has attracted to its ranks an unlikely warrior – Monash economics graduate Kimberley Cole.
Modern-day slavery entraps more than 40 million people around the globe and reaps its perpetrators an estimated US$150 billion a year.
Cole became one of the leading modern-day activists during her time with the world’s largest news and information service, Thomson Reuters. As head of solutions sales, financial and risk, Asia, she instigated the Thomson Reuters anti-slavery summits that have been held in recent years in Hong Kong.
Cole explains her role by pointing out that while slavery is a brutal suppression of fundamental human rights, it is, at its core, a financial crime. She says modern-day slavery entraps more than 40 million people around the globe and reaps its perpetrators an estimated US$150 billion a year.
It’s this financial plunder that she saw as something she could tackle.
Cole has had a long career in business leadership, finance and data technologies with Thomson Reuters, in Australia, Singapore, London and – most recently – Hong Kong, until leaving the firm at the end of 2018.
Reflecting on her anti-slavery stance, she explains that from a Thomson Reuters financial and risk perspective, 80 per cent of the company’s customers were banks:
“And we had great tools to help them identify money laundering,” she says. “So we took the approach that slavery often also involved money laundering, so we could take action.”
Cole led an innovative collaboration between Thomson Reuters and international charity Liberty Shared, which combined on-the-ground information from NGOs with financial data and technology services to identify potential slave-related activity and those involved.
“Companies need to take responsibility for digging deeper into their supply chains, which are increasingly global. The reality is that everyone will have a link to slavery in some way.”
She’s also put slavery on the agenda of business networks she’s helped establish. While they’re principally to support opportunities for women in the finance and business sector, the slavery issue aligns well with the gender lens of these networks, as slavery disproportionately affects women. Almost three-quarters of victims of the modern slave trade are women and girls.
Networks she’s founded include Women in Finance Asia and Risky Women, a global network to connect and champion women working in business risk, regulation and compliance. Cole continues to run the Risky Women network, with events held around the world, and a podcast channel – Risky Women Radio. And while slavery is only one issue it addresses, it has particular implications for corporate managers addressing financial and reputational risks.
Modern slavery and supply chains
It was just eight years ago that Cole realised the insidious and ubiquitous nature of modern slavery, after attending an event held by the Mekong Club in Hong Kong, an organisation established to help mobilise the private sector to tackle the issue.
With an estimated 60 per cent of slavery victims in Asian countries, she says there’s a need for more awareness in local communities as well as further afield. “Companies need to take responsibility for digging deeper into their supply chains, which are increasingly global. The reality is that everyone will have a link to slavery in some way.”
Cole has shone a light on the issue in Hong Kong since 2015 when she co-founded Trust Forum Asia, which evolved into the Stop Slavery Summits. She says increasing media coverage and public discourse is heightening awareness of the issue and leading to change. Supply chains that involve any form of slavery or forced labour are unsustainable, and becoming more so with each new piece of legislation passed, including Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018.
Today, Cole’s work continues through her role on the board of the Fair Employment Foundation – a Hong Kong-based not-for-profit organisation established to provide recruitment services for employers without trapping migrant workers into debt bondage.
Migrants seeking work are often charged illegal fees by recruitment companies for being introduced to employers. In Hong Kong, figures suggest some migrant workers effectively work for free for six to eight months to pay off debts incurred in seeking a job. Sometimes workers’ passports are also confiscated – another illegal practice – which prevents them from leaving.
From 2014 to 2018, the foundation’s Fair Employment Agency placed 3000 migrants into jobs as domestic workers – without charging them fees. That’s 3000 fewer victims of forced labour,and HK$4.5 million kept from the coffers of criminals.
As part of its operations, the agency uses online resources and workplace events to inform potential employers of migrant workers about legal requirements, and how they can help prevent forced labour and related criminal activities.
These kinds of awareness activities are crucial in helping to empower people to take action to end modern-day slavery, says Cole – whatever action that may be.
At Monash, we’re committed to ending the exploitation of people and creating a future free from slavery. Our researchers were instrumental in the introduction of Australia’s first anti-slavery legislation, and through industry partnerships are elevating corporate response and responsibility. In partnership with the UN, we’re developing a framework to achieve safe and fair labour migration for all women in the ASEAN region, a population with the greatest prevalence of slavery in the world.