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Confronting Labor Trafficking: An Upcoming On the Merits Story

JC Steinbrunner

According to the International Labour Organization, Victor Boutros tells me one rainy day in Washington, D.C., approximately 27.6 million people are being trafficked around the world at any given time.

Wrap your head around that number: 27.6 million people. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, that is the combined population of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas.

Think about it. Imagine the combined populations of the top nine largest cities in the United States forced, coerced, or defrauded for someone else’s profit. Day after day.

Victor is the CEO of the Human Trafficking Institute, a D.C.-based not-for-profit dedicated to decimating trafficking at its source by enabling systems of justice to operate more efficiently and transparently. They do this by training local authorities in-country to recognize and disrupt trafficking practices. In 2021, HTI partner countries protected over 900 victims, facilitated more than 600 arrests, and trained over 1,000 officials to stop traffickers. Since 2017, they have also published the Federal Human Trafficking Report, an exhaustive analysis of trafficking prosecutions in U.S. federal courts.

We met Victor and the HTI team through our partner, Exiger, as we developed the story for our upcoming documentary, On the Merits: Labor Trafficking. More than a year in the making, the film looks at the role technology can play in human trafficking. Does it enable traffickers? Can AI be effective in thwarting human trafficking, most notably in complex supply chains? What is the duty of corporations, of people, to respond to it? And why is Relativity telling this story?

On the Merits

Fall is all about Fest here at Relativity. It’s the realization of months of effort to build a wonderful, comprehensive conference for our users and customers. Relativity Fest has many parts, but they all stem from three core motivations: educate our customers on the industry and our products; inspire our users with in-depth, hands-on best practices, dynamic speakers, and networking events; and celebrate the impact our collective work in legal and compliance data discovery has on the mechanisms and practice of justice.

Our On the Merits docuseries carries forward this celebration of our community. It looks at the role data plays in compelling current events that involve our customers, and how technology helps Relativity, through our community, advance our mission to organize data, discover the truth, and act on it. The program grew out of one slide in the 2018 Relativity Fest keynote, where we hinted at wanting to share some of the most impactful stories from our community with the world.

The following year, that slide became On the Merits: Flint, documenting the efforts of our partner, Meta-e, to level the playing field by supporting the discovery process in a class action suit over tainted water in Flint, Michigan. We’ve also looked at how our fellow Relativians answered a call from the White House to deduplicate the glut of research on COVID-19, reducing extraneous information that threatened to hamper progress toward a vaccine.

Two years ago, Exiger proposed a Fest session exploring how analytics can speed up reviews of communications networks, audio, and social platforms to help investigators move quickly on trafficking matters. “The ability to mine and quickly process all available structured and unstructured data,” read the abstract, “facilitates the process of finding red flags, ultimately helping to save lives.”

As we explored the concept with Exiger, the 45-minute Relativity Fest session evolved into a 45-minute documentary spanning continents and fields of expertise. We interviewed data scientists, executives, labor experts, trafficking survivors, police and former FBI agents, former federal prosecutors, victim advocates, and supply chain experts to understand how trafficking works, how technology can help, how public and private data repositories can accelerate enforcement, and our roles—the storytellers and the viewers, the technologists and the users, the advocates and the informed—in mitigating the abuse.

It's fitting that we’ll debut the result of all this work at Relativity Fest 2022. The film will run multiple times throughout the conference, and we’ll share it online for those who can’t join us in Chicago to see it.

The honor of working at Relativity is choosing from so many of the stories our customers want to share; the rigor of the work is bringing to life the innovations and insights they develop through the tech; the joy is in the interview and the edit, telling their stories in novel ways. Relativity builds more than a platform for technological innovation; it’s our privilege to maintain the story circle that celebrates our community and shares their experiences of problem solving, invention, passion, and hope.

Risky Business

Of those 27.6 million people being trafficked each day, 80 percent of them—22 million people—are subjected to labor trafficking. It’s an abuse that happens in the daylight, probably where you live. People may be forced to mine cobalt for your phone battery in the Congo, or they might have turned down your bed on that business trip to Cleveland. Ronny Marty wound up packaging DVDs in Hunstville, Alabama.

Ronny, whose family and friends staked him to come to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, couldn’t afford not to work. But he also couldn’t afford to work. His so-called employers repeatedly garnished his wages to pay for “expenses” related to his job: reimbursement for an all-night minivan ride from his original destination of Kansas City, fees for a visa extension, his share of the apartment rental. (Altogether, the four roommates in a single bedroom apartment monthly paid $1,600 on a $400-per-month lease.) His first paycheck was for $40.

Debt bondage doesn’t require menace. And threats against Ronny’s family held him as firmly as chains would have. Driven by desperation, Ronny eventually led his fellow survivors out of their situation by exposing their working and living conditions to the media. He’s now the owner of his own business and a tireless advocate against trafficking. We were fortunate to interview Ronny for our film and grateful to learn about his experience surviving trafficking.

Why does this happen in today’s world? Put simply, supply chains are opportunities that cut both ways. The logistical wizardry of balancing cost and quality to support global consumer demand can mean the promise of jobs—but it can also incentivize abuse. The complexity of contractor and sub-contractor relationships can also be a risk, allowing illegal labor practices to flourish.

From a business perspective, inattention to one’s vendor ecosystem could mean a company inadvertently enables trafficking to occur. As Brandon Daniels, CEO of Exiger, tells me in the film, “any time you have the opportunity to make a thousand decisions,” he says of supply chains, “the end state is going to be complex.”

In the documentary, we also explore whether the power and range of artificial intelligence can help. Models built by running open-source data through AI algorithms help law enforcement find outliers in business practices or patterns that can point toward abuse, enabling officials to disrupt trafficking practices. And while scanning the public web with AI allows companies to understand their exposure to risk quickly, the combination of public and private silos of data is where corporations can be moral actors as well.

“A lot of companies are thinking of taking [risk management] a step further,” says Brandon, “and partnering with organizations like HTI. It’s a moral good that we as corporations—which are just collections of people—have a belief in. [Risk is] not just in financial loss. It’s the risk to civil society as we know it. The imperiling of our values can also be included in what corporations and the corporate ecosystem can think of as risk.”

Tangible Hope

Supply chains, like artificial intelligence, aren’t inherently good or bad. “It’s not the technology itself,” says Apoorv Agarwal, Relativity’s VP of artificial intelligence. “It’s the way humans end up using it that makes it helpful toward a good cause or a bad cause.” Our values—and the way we act on them—influence whether these systems and processes positively or negatively affect our neighbors and ourselves.

Talking with Exiger, the Human Trafficking Institute, Ronny Marty, and our own Relativity team has been rewarding, not just because of the thoughtfulness and depth of their commitments to their missions, but for their shared values, the orienting of their moral compasses northward, building technology partnerships that supply the front line in the battle against trafficking. And that line, Victor told me on that rainy April day, “is on the battleground of tangible hope. If we can steward that tangible hope … it’s like this spark that can set forth a forest fire that can consume human trafficking at scale.”

That’s why he gets up in the morning, and that’s why we had to document it. Enjoy the film.

Relativity Fest 2022

JC Steinbrunner is the senior director of brand at Relativity and the executive producer of On the Merits, a docuseries that explores how the Relativity community uses technology to find truths in data that promote just outcomes in important current events.