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A Mining Billionaire Takes His War on Modern Slavery to the UN

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 24/09/2017 Katie Robertson
Billionaire Andrew Forrest, chairman of Fortescue Metals Group Ltd., listens during the Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference in Boao, China, on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. The annual event sees business and political leaders come together and runs from March 22 to 25.: Key Speakers At Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference © Bloomberg/Bloomberg Key Speakers At Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference

(Bloomberg) -- Andrew Forrest walks up to CEOs and confronts them with the ugly truth: You may be a slaveholder.

The Australian billionaire, who founded Fortescue Metals, one of the world’s largest iron ore producers, has spent years trying to convince anyone who will listen that slavery thrives in the modern world—and that they need to do something about it.

Since confronting the practice in his own company’s supply chain, Forrest has been on a mission to abolish forced labor and human trafficking. This year, he made it to the United Nations. A special panel of world leaders addressing global slavery was chaired by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday on the sidelines of the General Assembly and was attended by UN Secretary General António Guterres and senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump, among others.

Seated next to Forrest, the president’s daughter told leaders that global slavery was the “greatest human rights issue of our time” and that ending trafficking was a “top priority” of Donald Trump’s administration. May announced that the British government was doubling its spending on anti-slavery measures to $200 million and, of that, pledged $27 million to the U.S.-based Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, a public-private partnership that launched this year and aims to raise $1.5 billion.

Given the scale of the problem, it’s a modest effort so far. But it “was unthinkable probably six months ago, let alone six years ago,” Forrest said in an interview. “We had to explain the whole concept of modern slavery. People would get a thermometer out of their pocket and say, ‘Are you feeling all right? That ended centuries ago.’ ”

It is perhaps a surprising response; human trafficking is no secret. There are 40.3 million people trapped in slavery, including both forced labor and forced marriage, 71 percent of them women, according to the estimate of a report released this week, a collaboration between Forrest’s Walk Free Foundation and the International Labor Organization, in partnership with the International Organization for Migration. The report, which taps national surveys as well as records of assisted victims in an IOM Migration database and other sources, calls the estimate conservative. It’s roughly in line with earlier counts.

Forrest founded Walk Free in 2012 after visiting a Nepalese orphanage at the urging of his daughter Grace and met a victim of human trafficking, who screamed when he approached her. Microsoft founder Bill Gates suggested he find a way to quantify the scourge, and the foundation began putting together indexes of the prevalence of slavery around the world.

The power of measuring slavery nation by nation, Forrest said, “is that if you’re the president ... you can now no longer deny that slavery exists in your country. Countries and companies can no longer turn their heads the other way.”

And though the commitment from leaders at the UN is encouraging, he said, much of the responsibility for ending modern slavery lies with businesses examining their suppliers. At Fortescue, he found a supplier who was producing goods “all through the Fortune 500”—and had subcontractors withholding passports from workers.  

“You’ve got some really shocking conglomerates [in the U.S.] who won’t look for slavery, but you’ve got other champions like Wal-Mart, who, like me, have found slavery in their supply chains,” Forrest said. “These are the companies that will bring slavery to an end.”

To contact the author of this story: Katie Robertson in New York at krobertson21@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Jeffrey at pjeffrey@bloomberg.net.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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