Actor Ashton Kutcher testified emotionally before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday about the need to end modern slavery, a problem far greater in the United States and globally than many realize.
The hearing, chaired by Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, included a couple of moments of levity, which saw Mr. Kutcher blow Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona a kiss at one point after he told the actor he was better looking in his movies.
But Kutcher, best known for his goofy on-screen roles in “Dude where’s my Car” or “That 70’s Show,” had a decidedly serious tone. At times fighting back tears, he shared the dark stories of children forced into sexual slavery which pushed him to co-found Thorn, an organization that uses technology to find and identify those trafficked into labor or sexual exploitation.
Kutcher recalled the time a few years ago when the Department of Homeland Security contacted Thorn asking if they had the software to help locate a girl who was shown being raped in a video of the dark web:
“It devastated me,” he said, his voice shaking. “It haunted me because every night, I had to go to sleep every night and think about that little girl who was still being abused, and the fact that if I built the right thing, we could save her. So that’s what we did. And now, if I got that phone call, the answer would be ‘yes.’ ”
A number of senators on the panel applauded Kutcher for lending his celebrity profile and energy to the issue of sex and labor trafficking, which garnered fresh attention in the last couple of years after a landmark report from the Urban Institute and Northeastern University revealed what those who study and work against the issue have long claimed.
As the Monitor’s Stephanie Hanes wrote in a Christian Science Monitor series on the issue in 2015:
Labor trafficking in the US is far more pervasive. It is also far more intertwined with the way we live. There are humans who have been tricked or forced into working for meager wages, often in dreadful conditions, in almost every sector of the economy, from agriculture and domestic work to computer programming and carnivals.
Although many of these workers are, in a sense, invisible – hidden in farm barracks and individual homes – a huge number work in plain sight. They mow grass for landscaping crews, clean dishes in restaurant kitchens, paint toenails in salons and clean hotels and bathrooms – and that is just in the United States. Look globally, where the United Nations' International Labour Organization estimates that some 21 million people are victims of forced labor, and labor trafficking shows up in supply chains for numerous products, from automobiles to electronics to pet food.
For his part, Kutcher said “the internet trolls” normally tell him to “stick to his day job” when he gets political, but he said he considers his role at Thorn a top priority. Being a father of two was extra motivation he said.
Kutcher thanked lawmakers on the panel for taking up the issue, saying it was about upholding a fundamental American right for all: the right to pursue happiness.
“The right to pursue happiness for so many is stripped away – it’s raped, it’s abused, it’s taken by force, fraud, or coercion. It is sold for the momentary happiness of another,” he told the committee.
He pleaded the government to work more with private sector companies like his to help fund the development of software to detect slave-traders and find victims because it is expensive to build.
He relayed a story illustrating how technology like Thorn’s is helping locate trafficking victims far more quickly.
“ ‘Amy’ met a man online, started talking to him and a short while later they met in person,” he said. “Within hours, ‘Amy’ was raped and forced into trafficking. She was sold for sex, and this isn’t an isolated incident. There’s not much that’s unusual about it – the only unusual thing is that ‘Amy’ was found and returned to her family within three days using the software we created, a tool called Spotlight.”
“We’ve taken the investigation time from three years to three weeks.”