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Radical idea to help freed slaves: Just give them cash

In Thailand, the Issara Institute gives freed workers money, instead of services, and a chance to make their own choices again. Part 12 of a series on ending human trafficking.

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    Workers sort shrimp at a seafood market in Mahachai, Thailand, in September. The Thai seafood industry relies heavily on migrant workers, many of whom are trafficked from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia.
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Win Maw chose to come to Thailand. She chose to pay $550 to a broker, who smuggled her across the border from Myanmar in 2013. And while she also chose to work in a shrimp-peeling shed, she didn’t choose to do so 16 hours a day, six days a week, for less than $4 a day.

The broker lied to Win Maw, trapping her inside an unmarked factory in this port town an hour outside of Bangkok. She was unable to leave until she paid off her debt. Her three children, whom she left in Myanmar with her sister, were forced to quit school because they didn’t have the money to pay their fees. Her parents fell ill.

“I didn’t have any money to send them,” Win Maw says, “so I just cried.”

That all changed on May 12 when authorities arrived to free Win Maw and her 44 coworkers. The raid brought a long-wished-for end to the 18 months she had spent inside the factory, peeling and cleaning shrimp bound for overseas markets, including the United States.

Win Maw was finally free, but she was also broke.

Then, in early June, she discovered that her freedom came with an unexpected bonus: 9,000 baht, about $250, with no strings attached. It was the first of three equal payments she received in monthly installments from the Issara Institute, formerly known as Project Issara, a Bangkok-based organization that aids human trafficking victims.

Win Maw was speechless when a caseworker handed her the first payment, the equivalent of the monthly minimum wage in Thailand.

“I’d never held that much cash before,” she recalls on a recent afternoon in Samut Sakhon. “I’d never even seen 1,000 baht (about $28) notes.”

The philosophy behind the Issara Institute’s cash transfer program is simple: No one knows the needs of human trafficking victims better than the victims themselves. Yet they often lack the resources to address them. By giving them the ability to make their own decisions, the money empowers victims with a sense of autonomy they haven’t experienced in months, if not years.

“A lot of the more shelter-based services have goodwill in trying to provide everything that victims need,” says Lisa Rende Taylor, founder and executive director of the Issara Institute. “But the point isn’t the giving. The point is the choosing.”

Lisa Rende Taylor, founder and executive director of the Issara Institute, plans to offer unconditional cash transfers to dozens of human trafficking victims this year. Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor

Product of a 'totally jaded development worker'

Dr. Rende Taylor acknowledges that unconditional cash transfers are a radical approach to helping human trafficking victims, but she says that’s only because they’ve never been tried before.

The concept remains a hard sell within the international development and human rights communities. Giving money directly to individuals in need eliminates the need for the legion of aid workers who have traditionally decided how to spend it.

“There’s a real kind of racket going on in anti-trafficking,” she says during an interview in her new house-turned-office in Bangkok in mid-December. She and her start-up sized staff had moved in the week before. Unpacked moving boxes were scattered on tables and across the floor. “I’ve done so much stuff that in the end, it wasn’t the best way,” she adds, “but it was the way people did it for years.”

That resistance to change led Rende Taylor to quit her job at the United Nations in 2014 after working there for 17 years. She launched Project Issara seven months later.

Rende Taylor is a quick talker with an energetic intensity. She describes herself as a “totally jaded development worker” – albeit “empirically-based,” she’s quick to clarify. Even so, the Issara Institute's cash transfers have given her a new sense of hope. The organization plans to offer them to dozens of new recipients this year, she says, having received thousands of dollars from donors for the program.   

In addition to the cash transfers, the Issara Institute helps human trafficking victims schedule a comprehensive health check-up and find a job. It also puts them in touch with lawyers who can assist them in pursuing legal action against their former employers, often to collect lost wages.

Rende Taylor frequently uses words like “empowerment” and “agency” to describe the Issara Institute's objectives, intangible concepts that are antithetical in many ways to Southeast Asian society. Feudalism and paternalism have long guided everyday life in Thailand and its neighboring countries. Rende Taylor admits that reversing such deep-rooted attitudes is no easy task.

“We’re built on the foundation of a feudalist society,” she says about the history of the region. “All of these countries here in mainland Southeast Asia, that’s where they come from. Feudalism and empowerment are not natural friends.”

Rende Taylor is confident that cash transfers can help tip the scale in favor of the latter. It’s an ambitious goal, but one she’s convinced is the best way to help human trafficking victims get back on their feet.

Win Maw and Ko Zaw, who requested that their faces remain hidden in photographs, tell the story of their release to two of the Issara Institute’s staff members in Samut Sakhon, Thailand. Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor

Win Maw and her husband, Ko Zaw, are no exception. The couple met at the peeling shed and married soon after in a small ceremony on one of their few days off. While overjoyed with their newfound freedom, they were soon overwhelmed with the challenges of their new lives. Neither wanted to return home empty handed; they had planned to stay and work in Thailand to help support their families.

But their new lives felt tenuous: They were at risk of being arrested for not having the proper documents.

“We had to renew our work permits, but we didn’t have the money,” says Ko Zaw, who, like Win Maw, came to Thailand from neighboring Myanmar after being lied to by a broker who had promised a decent-paying job.

With the cash transfers in hand, they were each able to pay the $210 renewal fee on time. Win Maw sent much of what she had left to her three children in Myanmar. Ko Zaw sent remittances to his family, too. But first, he ran home to their apartment with the money and hid it in a safe place.

Shrimp peeled by slaves

Widespread human trafficking has helped make Thailand one of the biggest shrimp providers on earth. It sends nearly half of its supply to the US. The average American eats about 4 pounds every year, making shrimp the most popular seafood in the country.

Unable to keep up with the rising demand, Thai exporters rely on unregulated shrimp peeling sheds to fill their orders. A recent investigation by the Associated Press revealed that hundreds of these crowded factories are “hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls with no signs” in Samut Sakhon. The AP discovered three that each enslaved 50 to 100 people, many locked inside.

Despite continued promises to clean up its $7 billion seafood export industry, Thailand remains one of the world’s worst human trafficking hubs. US customs records show that shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves has made its way into the supply chains of major US food stores and retailers in all 50 states.

Owners of the illegal sheds often act with impunity, protected by complex supply chains that obscure the origins of individual shrimp. Complicit and corrupt Thai officials also provide them with cover. It’s this essential combination of factors that has allowed human trafficking in Samut Sakhon, a weathered seaside town that smells of salt water and fish, to flourish. A United Nations study found nearly 60 percent of Burmese laborers working in the city’s seafood processing industry were victims of forced labor. Reports of brutal working conditions and physical abuse are prevalent.

While arrests and prosecutions remain rare, mounting international pressure over the past year has forced Thailand’s military government to crack down on illegal activities within its fisheries sector. The government says it has passed strict new labor laws and is working to register undocumented migrant workers.

A Thai soldier stands between abandoned work stations during a raid on a shrimp shed in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, in November. Thailand remains one of the world’s worst human trafficking hubs. Dita Alangkara/AP/File

“At some point the talk has to give way to real action,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The big question is when or if will that happen.”

In the meantime, human rights activists and investigative journalists have helped free thousands of workers who were stuck in peeling sheds and on fishing boats. Some have decided to return to their home countries. Others have sought help from government-sponsored shelters. Nearly 70 workers from Myanmar and Laos have received cash transfers from Issara since it began offering them last May.

“These workers are so powerless,” says Taneeya Runcharoen, an antitrafficking activist in Bangkok. “Any kind of assistance is helpful.”

The aim of the cash transfers is to support human trafficking victims as they transition back into lives as free men and women. Ms. Runcharoen says many victims remain vulnerable even after they’re freed. Some even end up in jail for not having the right paperwork needed to live and work in Thailand.

Do cash transfer programs work?

Although the Issara Institute is the first organization to give cash transfers to human trafficking victims, similar programs have been used in the fight against global poverty since the mid-1990s. First introduced in Mexico, they’ve sprouted up in developing countries from Peru to Uganda over the last two decades.

Still, cash transfer programs make up only a fraction of development initiatives worldwide. That’s partly because governments and aid groups have emphasized solving long-term economic problems rather than an individual’s immediate needs.

Tin Nyo Win (left) acted as a whistleblower against the shrimp shed in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, where he and his wife, Mi San (right) worked. After being freed from the shed, the couple was arrested in November and charged with entering the country illegally and working without permits. They were held on $4,000 bail. Robin McDowell/AP

Nathan Fiala, an economist at the University of Connecticut who studies cash transfers, agrees that they are far from a panacea for all the challenges faced by the poorest of the poor, including human trafficking victims. But he contends that they can play an important role in helping many escape poverty.

For the past eight years, he's studied a program in Uganda that invites young adults in the country’s conflict-torn north to form groups and submit grant proposals for vocational training and business start-ups in skilled trades such as carpentry and tailoring. Members of the experimental groups received unsupervised grants of $382 each.

Fiala and his co-authors conceded in a 2013 paper about the program that “one reasonably worries that giving $7,500 to a group of inexperienced and low-skilled 25-year olds will come to naught.” Despite such fears, they found no evidence of recipients misspending the money or of it having an adverse effect on “social cohesion, antisocial behavior, or protest.”

“There is no doubt that people can make good use of the money," Fiala said in a phone interview, but he agrees with Rende Taylor that cash transfer programs have been slow to catch on among international aid groups. “Some people see that as a threat to their jobs,” he says.

It’s too early to measure the long-term success of the Issara Institute’s cash transfer program. But for Win Maw and Ko Zaw, the money has been life changing. It helped them avoid arrest and what they would have seen as a shameful return home.

Instead, they were able to move into a modest apartment in Samut Sakhon. They found work at another peeling shed with better pay and working conditions, allowing them to send more money to their families and for Win Maw’s children to return to school. Win Maw is now four months pregnant with their first child. Although she plans to give birth in Thailand, she and Ko Zaw someday plan to move back to Myanmar.

“We want to buy a house with a nice yard,” Win Maw says. “We just need to save enough money first.”

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