This event was Tweeted about with the event hashtag, #wmntrafficking.

With the help of our sponsors, Thomson Reuters, WMN put together a panel about human trafficking, inspired by the Thomson Reuters’ reports on the Rohingya people, winning Pulitzer Prize.

The panel consisting of staff member Tara Joseph, Tom Leander, a member of the Society of Publishers in Asia’s Awards Committee and editor-in-chief for Asia for Lloyd’s List, as well as Archana Kotecha who is best known for her work in social issues like human trafficking and her work with Liberty Asia. (You can learn more about the panel members here). Hong Kong Chapter President, Christina Pantin performed her last role for us, by moderating the panel.

Rohingya People

While the panel started with a chance to watch a short video about the Rohingya, I’d like to start the blog with a definition of human trafficking, which is not the same as human smuggling. Trafficking is essentially slavery and while we think of that as a thing of the past, it is not. Check out some of the event tweets to learn some shocking statistics about it.

Joseph starts things be questioning whether media have been paying attention to human trafficking is a question in itself. She notes that a lot of people who have risen in journalism in the last 20 years were looking at finance and Wall Street. But corporate social responsibility plays a bigger factor now and that affects society, the audiences and therefore media.

Leander says that the media is also under an economic pressure so these stories can be left behind, but what’s reported and how, is still important. “Stories create value, which generates revenue. It used to be ruled by columns inches but it isn’t anymore. That changes some of the approach to journalism,” he adds.

Leander and Joseph

And for Reuters to win a Pulitzer Prize shows that a decision to follow that story was made despite that it didn’t create revenue. But the award surely has created prestige?

Kotecha, who has dedicated most of her career to such things, answers somes questions: “Before, these stories were left to organisations like Amnesty International,” she explains noting the difference in smuggling and trafficking, which reporting doesn’t always make clear. “Thomson Reuters reported that, noting that the Thai Government had referred to it as smuggling, which it was not,” she says.

Moving deeper into the reaches of human trafficking, she says, “another correlation that people don’t understand is how the prawn on their dinner plate does link back to the slave on the fishing boat. So, human trafficking benefits us in ways we don’t know.” She adds, that prawns used to be considered a luxury and now, they are common-place.

In fact, companies that don’t do proper due diligence on their supply chains might easily be buying materials and products from factories and companies with outright slavery conditions, poorly paid and cared for workers and so on. Customers might not think about this at all – but CP foods, who sell huge supermarket chains in the UK, got caught out.

But human trafficking and slavery is in our every day lives. Kotecha says, “where there are brothels, there are sex workers. Mainland construction workers who cross the border every day, what are their conditions? If you are worried, don’t buy just any chocolate, buy fair trade chocolate. We make choices.”


Looking back at media, Joseph says, “it was easier in the past for these large stories to disappear quickly, especially when it’s not clearly occurring on your doorstep. But computers and globalisation changes that. As does the ability to get data – journalists in the field are at risk, there are considerations to covering such stories.

And if you think it doesn’t happen in Hong Kong? Migrant workers come here for work, often in debt from getting here and are stuck working in a household and with the agency holding their passport. Kotecha says, “in LegCo and elsewhere this is overlooked now because it’s become a tired topic.”

The story of Erwiana can’t be ignored by Hong Kongers, can it? Kotecha discusses this with the audience, wondering how such a sick woman could get through the airport without any notice? With her own tired and crying children, Kotecha receives stares and attention. The case is now in courts so watch this space.

Of course, this raised some awareness in Hong Kong and many found it shocking. “Highlighting personal cases makes the cause stronger within the news, helps people to understand and give it attention,” says Joseph. But Kotecha wards off that, because it creates a hierarchy between victims. “So if your wounds are less visual, are you in a better condition? If you can’t see the emotional and physical wounds, does it mean that people won’t feel the story?” She asks.

“A lot of between-the-lines issues occurred during the case, which was not reported, despite the reporters being aware. The difficulty perhaps being that the Indonesian economy does rely on these overseas workers sending money home, just as Hong Kongers rely on their help to go out and do their work,” says Kotecha. Her very real criticism is that the wider issues were not covered in Hong Kong media.


Leander notes that human rights organisations often criticise how the media reports but the Rohingya story was a good example of how to do it. “It’s necessary to really define the issues and definitions as well as follow up – what about the court cases, what about the outcome?” This is a big issue for Kotecha, who says we need more than an amazing story that captures attention and then dies out, we need a more sustainable approach to the stories. One of the reasons the Rohingya story worked is that it didn’t focus on a single person. Leander asks “why isn’t naming the criminals as compelling as naming the victims?”

But there is a brighter side. Joseph says that it is getting better, even compared with a year ago, and Kotecha agrees. Her experience in helping to employ and rehome women like the Rohingya, in detention centres, changed entirely after the Thomson Reuters report came out, with strangers contacting her to help. “Human trafficking makes people into objects – no name, no passport, no home, no bank account and suddenly they are not human and no-one will help,” Kotecha explains.

Follow the conversation @wmnasiapacific

Follow the conversation @wmnasiapacific

If you’re interested in this topic, please contact WMN. There is also this TED talk about it.

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