MB Dec | Macau turning a blind eye to modern slavery

By: Vítor Quintã

One in five sex workers and domestic helpers in Macau are victims of modern slavery. That’s the chilling estimate of Matt Friedman, who has spent almost three decades fighting human trafficking in Asia.

The most visible face of this phenomenon is sex trafficking, especially in connection with the city’s glittering hotels. “You have a casino world, so you’re going to have that,” says the former regional manager of the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking.

Just last year, Alan Ho, nephew of casino kingpin Stanley Ho, was sentenced to jail for running a prostitution racket in the landmark Hotel Lisboa.

Yet, Grant Bowie admits sex trafficking has not gone away. “At the level of sex workers, clearly in our properties, we accept that it occurs,” conceded MGM China’s Chief Executive Officer. “What we try to do, with the support of the Macau authorities and non-governmental organisations, is if people seek help and need help that’s something we’re actively disposed to do,” adding the casino operator has been trying to raise awareness among its staff, from security to cleaning.

Sex work is not a crime in Macau, which Matt Friedman claims might make it easier to turn a blind eye, saying: “The trouble with modern slavery, when it comes to law enforcement, is that if prostitution is legal, there’s no reason to go and have direct contact [with sex workers].”

“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t find it,” stresses the modern-day abolitionist. “If you haven’t been trained, you don’t even know what questions to ask the victims.”

Maids in debt bondage

Yet human trafficking is not just about the sex trade. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates that of the 45.8 million victims 75% endure forced labour.

Friedman believes many of the domestic helpers in Macau fall into this category, particularly Indonesians pressured into signing a contract back home that pushes them into debt bondage.

Such was the case of Yosa Wariyanti. The president of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union in Macau had to spend eight months undergoing unpaid training in Jakarta in 2001, only to be shackled with a debt of 12 months’ wages to the recruitment agent.

Despite a bad experience as a domestic helper in Taiwan, her family’s poor financial situation forced Yosa to do it all over again in 2007 before landing a job in Hong Kong in return for giving the agent her first seven months’ wages.

For many domestic helpers, the stress of trying to repay this debt, while failing to send money to their families back home, makes it all too much to bear.

According to a study whose results were released last week by University of Macau mental health researcher Brian Hall, 18 per cent of all domestic helpers are believed to suffer from depression, an occurrence twice as high as for local Chinese women.

Legal pitfalls

Yet, not all is gloom and doom. In 2012, Matt Friedman founded The Mekong Club in neighbouring Hong Kong to pursue another way to tackle modern slavery: working with the private sector.

“Instead of forcing them through some kind of ‘naming and shaming’,” he says, “we engage them with the hope and expectation that we can help them manage the inherent risks in their business.”

A risk that is increasingly real. Both the UK and several US states have introduced legislation forcing companies to address modern slavery or face fines. In addition, a Philadelphia motel was sued in March for providing rooms to sex traffickers, a case that could create a legal precedent.

Grant Bowie admits corporate reputation matters greatly to MGM China and its parent company MGM Resorts. But that’s not the key issue, says the executive, who spoke at the Anti-Slavery Summit in Hong Kong in August.

“At the end of the day, we could still be embarrassed, but we’re not doing this to actually be recognised for it,” he says. “We’re doing it because we believe that, more importantly, the later we start the longer it will take before we actually make a difference.”

Zero-tolerance pledge

To make that difference, MGM China joined a pledge last month asking dozens of Hong Kong-based companies to demonstrate from a list of 10 things what they will do to address modern slavery, including responsible procurement and supply chain management.

MGM has introduced a Vendor Code of Conduct to obtain information on workplace standards throughout their supply chain. If a supplier refuses to follow this code “then we wouldn’t use them,” Bowie is quick to add.

The Mekong Club wants to help companies stay abreast of these legal dangers and is developing a risk assessment tool to identify how much due diligence they should conduct on a particular country, region and industry.

The organisation is also using data collected from the pledge members to develop a business index which should be released by year-end. “Once we refine these tools, we will offer them directly to other countries as well,” says Friedman. Greed might be the ultimate image of international business, but the modern day abolitionist says “there are people in the corporate world who care, who have kids, who worry about exploitation.”

On a hopeful note, MGM China was one of 15 finalists for this year’s Stop Slavery Award. “It’s a positive sign we’re on the right track, but clearly we’ve got to do more,” says the company’s CEO.

Grant Bowie wants to create a network within Macau’s hospitality industry to help tackle modern slavery because “when it comes to a sense of humanity, I’m not sure there is anything more significant than that.”