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UN.GIFT interview with CNN investigative journalist Dan Rivers

CNN investigative journalist Dan Rivers first heard the name Chanary when working on an assignment about bonded labor Southeast Asia. Chanary's mother recounted her daughter's plight to Mr Rivers and his team from the CNN Freedom Project: she was recruited from her village in Cambodia to work in Malaysia, only to be saddled with heavy debts and forced to work long hours in an electronics factory. She was unable to leave. It is a story all too common in what CNN described as a "complex trail of exploitation in a business supply chain."



UN.GIFT sat down with Dan Rivers to discuss Chanary's situation, the power of investigative journalism in exposing human trafficking and exploitation, and what consumers can do to ensure the products they purchase are free of labor exploitation.


UN.GIFT: In this report you describe a factory in Malaysia in which workers are forced to work seven days a week and are unable to leave because they aren't in possession of their documents; they are effectively held as bonded labourers. Are companies at the top of the supply chain aware of the conditions that workers are subjected to in their suppliers' (or sub-contractors') factories? How can companies ensure that their products are completely free of labour exploitation?


D.R.: That's a very tough challenge. We approached one consumer organisation Fairtrade, which certifies mainly foods and drinks are produced ethically. Fairtrade said it would consider looking to extending their certification system to electronics and other consumer products, but its already got its hands full in other areas. There is a trade body called the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition, which aims to spread best practice across the electronics industry, but that didn't prevent Chanary and her friends from being exploited in this case.


UN.GIFT: Chanary works in a factory that produces components for the electronics that our societies depend upon. How can consumers become more educated and guarantee that the products we use everyday are not made by workers that have been trafficked or are being held against their will?


D.R.: Ask questions of the manufacturers and vote with your wallet! Consumers have enormous power to affect change, simply by refusing to buy certain products. If enough people boycott a company, it will be forced to change its supply chain.


UN.GIFT: Chanary's luck changed when CNN decided to follow her story. However there are millions of people around the world that are victims of human trafficking - and most of their stories will not be heard. Do you have any messages of hope for them? Do you see any progress in combating human trafficking?


D.R.: CNN is committed to reporting on human trafficking and modern day slavery, as part of the CNN Freedom Project. It's impossible for us to expose every case of trafficking, but we hope by shining a light on some cases, we can raise awareness of the issue and put pressure on governments, NGOs and other international bodies to take tougher action.


UN.GIFT: What are governments, NGOs or companies doing to stop recruitment agencies from driving people into bonded labour?


D.R.: The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights has done some excellent work publicising this issue and combating it in Cambodia. Western Digital, which contracted the factory where Chanary worked in Malaysia also took action as a result of our investigation, improving pay rates and working conditions for staff. But the underlying issue of unscrupulous recruitment agencies operating outside the law in Cambodia remains a real challenge for the Cambodian government.


UN.GIFT: Can you tell us about the investigative process you used to break this story? What are the main challenges you face when working on human trafficking stories?


D.R.: We were in Cambodia to report on issues around forced labour, when we were told about a village where several woman claim they were tricked into accepting jobs abroad only to find the terms and conditions weren't as advertised. When we interviewed these women, their story was shocking. They told how a recruitment agency in Cambodia had promised them a lucrative job in Malaysian factory, but when they arrived their passports were confiscated and they were told they now "owed" the agency thousands of dollars in fees and wouldn't be allowed home until it was paid off. While in the village, we were introduced to an elderly woman who said he daughter was still at the factory and was desperate to contact her and help her come home. This was the starting point for our investigation, which involved confronting the agency in Cambodia and eventually visiting the young woman in Malaysia to hear first-hand about the terrible conditions in which she was forced to work.


UN.GIFT: The CNN Freedom Project has been instrumental in exposing cases of modern-day slavery and raising awareness about the issue. CNN's involvement was essential in helping Chanary receive the pay she was promised. Are there any other stories you've worked on that have ended so positively?


D.R.: I also reported extensively on the plight on a nanny in Libya, who was enslaved by Hannibal Gaddafi and who was tortured by his wife. She had gone to Libya on the promise of well-paid work, but on arriving found she would be a nanny for Colonel Gaddafi's grandchildren - a job for which she was never paid and was unable to leave. After failing to stop one of the children crying, she had boiling water poured over her face by Hannibal's wife, Aline and was terribly burnt as a result.  We helped Shweyga get treatment in Libya and then organised paperwork for her to be transferred to a hospital in Malta. We managed to raise about $40,000 for Shweyga and she remains in Malta, where  her treatment continues.


UN.GIFT: Can you highlight a story of two that have not resulted in as happy an ending?


D.R.: While we managed to improve pay and conditions for Chanary, she remains working at the factory in Malaysia, trying to pay back thousands of dollars in "fees" to the recruitment agency. There are thousands of other "recruits" hired in Cambodia who are duped into jobs with substandard pay. The recruitment industry in Cambodia is remains deeply problematic with close ties to the government and military and often little oversight and poor standards of care for the young men and women that are lured with false promises of lucrative jobs.


UN.GIFT: What inspired CNN to launch the Freedom Project?


D.R.: CNN wanted to shine a penetrating light on a global issue, using our unique global reach and network of bureaux. The worldwide modern slave trade is massive - the ILO estimates some 20-30 million people are modern day slaves. CNN is committed to highlighting their plight.


UN.GIFT: Are there any NGOs, media outlets, or organizations that you can highlight that are working to end bonded labour and modern-day slavery?


D.R.: Anti-Slavery International works at local, national and international levels to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world and CNN partnered with Anti-Slavery International to help raise money for Shweyga, the nanny who was enslaved by the Gaddafi family and horribly burnt in Libya.


To read a recent report that Mr Rivers wrote about Chanary and investigative journalism, click here.


To watch the series, click here.