Innovator Insights: Slavery Seen and Solved

It’s an uncomfortable truth: people are still trapped in slavery, and not just in agriculture and manufacturing, the two sectors that may come to mind immediately. “Both the consumer and industry need to think beyond the tag,” said Arati Sureddi, Ashoka American Express Emerging Innovator and founder of LOTUS Alliance, an organization committed to cutting across sectors to fight human trafficking.

Some people have been enslaved to do service industry work. “Just because there is no barcode attached does not mean that the supply chain is free of exploitation,” Sureddi said. “Services are 60 percent of our global economy.”

When Sureddi came to understand this herself, the concept for LOTUS was born. She is the daughter of immigrants and has traveled to six continents. “LOTUS is an amalgamation of my life experiences, education, work, and travel,” she said. “There is a lack of awareness of human rights abuses within service industry supply chains.”

To build this awareness, LOTUS Alliance lists responsible service sector providers, ensuring that travelers are well-informed about hotels they visit and the services they are seeking. LOTUS works to promote organizations that guarantee fair and humane practices, hoping to build public appreciation for social responsibility alongside environmental responsibility while highlighting the financial incentives that come of being accountable.

LOTUS also funds job training programs for survivors of human trafficking operated by direct service organizations working in geographic regions where tourism is a significant economic driver.

“Tourism is the largest employer globally, generating 10 percent of all jobs. There are 60 million additional tourism jobs projected by 2018,” Sureddi said. Much of this growth is taking place in emerging economies where the laws governing employment and human rights practices are more lax.

Sureddi said LOTUS is creating a platform that “systematically generates funding for adult survivors, or those at-risk of being trafficked; increases consumer awareness and the ability to make responsible purchases; and shifts the focus of responsible tourism from being solely on green initiatives to human-based ones.”

Sureddi noted that Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup, and the upcoming 2016 Olympics, has brought more attention to the issue of human trafficking. But, she added, “one does not become either a trafficker or a victim just for a certain set of time.

“We have watched as the Brazilian government has bent to FIFA’s demands and foreigners’ fears, clearing out the favelas in Rio that are closest to tourist areas. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888, and it would appear that it is moving back toward a slave state, using those at the bottom to support the lifestyle of the wealthy. Frankly, I am more concerned about what will happen when the entire world’s eyes are no longer on Brazil.”

Which begs the question: how many other places in the world—perhaps in our own backyard—conceal an intricate web of human trafficking? Fortunately, as consumers, we have the power to make conscientious decisions that can leave a lasting impact.

“We can be a more proactive and educated society about this issue,” Sureddi said. “I would rather see an individual spend more money on a socially responsible item, and not give a penny to charity, than buy cheap goods with poor labor practices and donate to other organizations. To give with one hand and take with the other isn’t helping anything. No abolition organization wants to exist in perpetuity.”

Arati Sureddi was a part of a group of 45 leading social innovators from North America that took part in the 2014 American Express Emerging Innovators Boot Camps. Want to hear more from the innovators like Arati? Check back here for more Innovator Insights, and follow #emerginginnovators and @changemakers.