If someone came up to you and randomly asked you, “How many slaves work for you?” maybe you’d think, “Slavery ended a long time ago, Bro.” Or maybe you would take the question seriously. With 20 million to 46 million people enslaved in the world, it is a serious question, and while we don’t see it daily, some of these enslaved people make things for us. Even if we’re judicious about what we buy, we would be surprised just how much global slavery goes into producing the goods we do buy. But how can we quantify it? How can we solve this? Justin Dillon, who has worked with the U.S. State Department and hundreds of businesses, thinks he has the answer.


Ginette: Our world today is an extremely vast, complicated, and interconnected web of 7.5 billion people. We’re directly connected to some, and it’s really easy to see those connections on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. But there’s a whole other group of people we are much more subtly connected to—people who are basically (who are essentially working for us) invisible to us, 20 to 46 million of them.

“Our guest today deals with this invisible web every day.”

Ginette: “I’m Ginette.”

Curtis: “And I’m Curtis.”

Ginette: “And you are listening to Data Crunch.”

Curtis: “A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.”

Ginette: “A Vault Analytics production . . .”

Ginette: “Today’s episode is brought to you by data.world, the social network for data people. Discover and share cool data, connect with interesting people, and work together to solve problems faster at data.world. Quickly locating data, understanding it, and combining it with other sources can be difficult. The data.world Python library allows you to bring data.world datasets straight into your workflow. Easily work with data and metadata in your Python scripts and Jupyter notebooks. Ready to dive in? Learn how to use data.world’s Python library at meta.data.world.

Curtis: “Before we get going, one other note about data.world—starting today until May 5th, we are hosting a data competition on their site, and we’d love your participation. Donald Trump’s tweets have been the source of a lot of media attention recently—many high profile news outlets have asserted his tweets show signs of authoritarianism, some say he’s using his twitter account to shape the new cycle, and some have even built algorithms to make stock market decisions based on his tweets. Whatever your stance is on the subject, we’ve uploaded a dataset of every single one of his Tweets up to data.world, and we want to see what you can make of the data. This is a create competition by nature—submissions can be of any format, but the point is we want to see what you can learn, assert, or create with this data set. It’s easy to participate—just go to data.world/datacrunch, and you’ll find the dataset and all of the details. Submit by May 5, and we’re going to take all the submissions that tell the most compelling stories, we want to feature them on a future podcast episode.”

Ginette: “Now back to the story. A few months ago, I ran across a website. It sucked me in. It asked me a provocative question, which we’ll get to in just a second, but first, we’ll introduce you to the man who’ll situate the story for you—the main person behind the website.”  

Justin: “My name’s Justin Dillon. I’m the founder and CEO of Made in a Free World. We started off years ago. I would say probably the genesis for us was me getting a call from the State Department in about 2010. I’d already been doing some projects, a few websites and, films that I was producing, around human trafficking and modern-day slavery.”

Curtis: “Justin directed a documentary he released in 2008 called ‘Call + Response,’ which ranked as one of the top documentaries in 2011.”

Justin: “And the State Department called and said, we would like to do a project with you, we like the way that you use data and tell stories, and we have this idea called Slavery Footprint. We kind of worked on that together and figured out what it’s going to be, and I was able to employ some econometricians and artists and really was able to pull in a blend of art-science to build a platform called Slavery Footprint, which asks the world a very simple question, ‘Do you want to know how many slaves work for you?’”

Ginette: “Slavery Footprint is that website that sucked me in. And it was compelling because I’d never been asked or even studied this question before. I didn’t think I had any connection to slavery.”

Justin: We didn’t think many people would want the answer to that question, but to date, over 25 million people asked for the answer for that question, all around the world.”

Curtis: “Slavery Footprint immediately started to see impressive success. The original campaign goal was 150,000 people taking the survey in the first year. The actual result was 1,000,000 surveys in the first month, and then 2,000,0000 by the end of the second month. And it’s received awards from Cannes, SXSW, The Andy Awards, the Art directors club, and the list keeps going on. Also of note is that President Obama even mentioned Justin’s work in a speech.”

President Obama: “Every citizen can take action by learning more, by going to the website that we helped create, slaveryfootprint.org.”

Curtis: “So, why is this website so compelling? The site is really good at taking you down a journey, and along the way, showing you where the things you buy are at risk of being sourced from slave labor. It asks you questions like, ‘Where do you live?’, ‘What’s your age?’, ‘What electronics do you own?’ ‘What type of foods do you eat?,’ and it helps you answer these questions in a visually compelling way. And as you answer these questions, it helps you start to  notice the risk factors of the items you purchase, and it actually starts to put a face to the forced laborers that produce those products. You start reading things like, ‘Many Pakistani boys are signed away to bonded labor at the age of 13. The contracts last until they’re 30.’ and ‘1.4 million children have been forced to work in Uzbek cotton fields. There are fewer children in the entire New York City public school system.’

Ginette: “It’s well documented that this kind of forced labor exists around the world, but my gut reaction before starting the survey was there was absolutely no way I had slaves working for me. I’m a granola-leaning minimalist. I do an adapted capsule closet thing. I don’t like having lots of stuff. I don’t have diamonds. I don’t drink coffee. And so all these reasons why I’m not complicit meant I probably didn’t any slaves working for me. But after crunching the numbers, Slavery Footprint’s algorithm told me I had 34 slaves.

“This number was really surprising and shocking and who wants to find out they have 34 slaves working for them? It’s a terrible realization that things I have are built from slave labor. The power of this number was even weightier when we considered the data sets used by the algorithm.”

Curtis: “We read through their methodology and found out they assign a number of slaves to each product based on information collected from the State Department, the Department of Labor, the International Labor Organization, Transparency International, Freedom House, International Office of Migration, World Health Organization, and the list goes on. And to take it a step further, to confirm the data, they brought in people from the government, academia, NGOs, leading think tanks, and independent experts. And for their basic assumptions, they relied on focus groups.

Ginette: So this was intriguing and chilling, and so we called up Justin Dillon the man who headed up Slavery Footprint to chat with him a little more about this project.”

Justin: “Slavery Footprint really was a ‘can we keep people’s attention about something that they probably don’t want to know anything about, but can we make them feel inspired and empowered, and do all of that within five minutes, and tell the truth, you know what I mean? Like through the entire thing give facts and give data in the easiest way possible. The way that we did that really is just a blend of science and art, and so we picked 400 different of the most popular consumer products, and then we did product breakdowns. Now that term is known as our product genome project. So what goes into a blender? What goes into a bed sheet? What goes into a bicycle? And while we may not capture all the information, we have the strongest and best database on where all the raw materials coming from, where are certain points of manufacturing—obviously there’s a lot of gaps, but we got most of it. And we could figure out all these different pieces from primary extractives all the way up to manufacturing of where the inputs are in these 400 different consumer products.

“We admittedly geeked out, but we geeked out as an artist. I don’t know how to explain it in any other way. We were very much about how can we create this story out of this data that’s going to mean something to someone and possibly mean something to the world. And so, as we constructed these product genomes cross 400 different consumer products for Slavery Footprint, it turned out to be quite a bit of data. And so we needed a way for people to be able to not just digest but interact with that in an interesting way, and I think the blend of those two, where you you have a high, high, high level of empiricism, and then a high level of invitational design, where you are bringing people into the story of the data and not just pushing it on ‘em. And I think a lot of times scientists have a hard time empathizing with people’s digestion of that. That’s where the performers and the artists come in of like they understand and empathize with what people can absorb, and so when you get those, the art and the science working together, you get something like Slavery Footprint, which has done a lot.”

Curtis: “What Justin told us went beyond a website that blends data science and art.”

Justin: “It’s played no small role in the passing of legislation here in the US, in the UK, around slavery and supply chains.

“Part of what we did at slavery footprint was we published our numbers daily. So people always knew how many footprints were being taken. We didn’t bury our data. So what that does is it kind of forces a public conversation around it, and that conversation continued to grow and grow, and the media kept picking up on it,

Ginette: “It’s had over 100 thousand media impressions, which includes every major media outlet including CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Le Monde, The Guardian, and hundreds of others.”

Justin: “Because all of a sudden all of these people all around the world—it wasn’t just Americans—it was people in lots of different countries wanted to know how many slaves worked for them, and frankly they wanted to know how to fix it quickly. And so, part of that tension, I believe, is what, led at least we certainly know this is the case with the Obama administration, is the passing of some executive orders that he created around federal contractors. Basically the president said, ‘we want to clean up our own supply chain, the largest supply chain in the world, largest buyer in the world,’ and he created an executive order that says, ‘any federal contractor that’s doing business with the United States,’ I shouldn’t say any, there’s qualifications, but ‘federal contractors doing business with the United States are now required to understand and know where slavery is in their supply chains,’ and while that didn’t happen over night and hasn’t happened over night, it is happening now, and very, very large companies are doing things they’ve never done before, and frankly the world’s getting better because of it, because when you start looking for problems, that’s when you begin to start solving them.”

Curtis: “But besides playing a role in changing policy, Slavery Footprint also led to another intriguing data-driven initiative that Justin currently heads up as CEO.”

Justin: “What we found with doing that project, Slavery Footprint, which, you know, was far more successful than we thought it was going to be—State Department and the Obama administration were all surprised at how it did, but really what it gave the world was a data point saying,  ‘this is an issue that’s important for consumers, it’s important for business, and it’s something that has some will in the marketplace to fix,’ and so that’s what led us to starting ‘Made in a Free World.’”

Ginette: “Made in a Free World is a public-private partnership with the State Department, and Justin got another shout out from the United States when former Secretary of State John Kerry announced this new initiative.”

John Kerry: “And that’s why we’re partnering with MadeinaFreeWorld.com in order to develop a risk assessment tool that will help business leaders weigh the risk of trafficking throughout their supply chains.”

Ginette: “Back to Justin.”

Justin: “Once Slavery Footprint was becoming a normal part of the conversation around this issue, companies started calling us because consumers were calling them, and they were asking us, well, what should we do? And we were able to sit down with over a hundred very, very large companies, and we just said, ‘well what are your pain points, and how can we help you fix this?’ as opposed to this idea that you’re required to fix it, and you have to do something impossible. ‘What do you need to understand?’ And most companies were coming back to us saying is in not too many words, they don’t know what they’re buying and from who.”

Ginette: “It might seem crazy to those of us who don’t understand supply chains that a company wouldn’t know its supply chain, but they are extremely complex. Usually how this works is companies work with a tier one supplier. So if you need 5,000,000 teal duck whistles, you’d call up your tier one supplier, and place your order. From there, the tier one would contract out the subcontractors, and they’d contract out other contractors, and it may go down 35 different layers of tiers.”

Justin: “Most companies can’t even really make an huge impact on suppliers beyond tier one. And in many cases, tier one suppliers may even be bigger than the companies buying from them, so their abilities to influence change in those suppliers is going to be somewhat low, so what our software does is we’re able to take in lots of different data points in a supply chain from supplier name to the product to possible countries of manufacturer to sub-manufacturers, any data that the company might have, and then of course we enrich that data, scrub that data, and build a dashboard for a company that helps them understand their risk across their entire supply chain. So we apply analytics based off of salients in proximity of risk to the company, risk versus spend, and we allow the company to adjust all of those parameters that best fits their planning for oversight over whatever amount of time they want to execute against that.”

Curtis: “Justin plans on using his data to help companies make informed purchase decisions. And the hope is that as companies start to make more and more purchase deals with suppliers that are ethical, the market pressure will start to force other contractors to bring up their standards as well.”

Justin: “So procurement, it’s kind of just an antiquated business, and so we started to partner with some businesses that were working on the next generation of procurement. One of those was a company called Ariba. Ariba is kind of like an eBay for procurement. Buyers and sellers come to the marketplace, and they buy across and invoice, and do purchase orders, and all the rest of it, on this network, and sometimes in pretty innovative ways, so we’re seeing hundreds of billions of dollars cross across this network, and we thought, ‘huh, what if our data could start getting into these decisions?’ Not the 100 dollar or 50 dollar decisions from consumers, though that’s important as well, but what if we were part of 50 million dollar contracts. That would be really interesting. What if we could help a buyer choose which direction they were going to purchase because of data about the supplier or the product genome of the product that they’re going to be inheriting?

“And so that really was five years ago, the genesis for us, for Made in a Free World was how do we build a platform and a database that can serve businesses with transparency that they can use at the point of purchase as opposed to creating a corporate social responsibility plan or changing some policies, which frankly seldom work. How do we be a part of that dollar across the barrel transaction where we can start to guide that money in a meaningful way, and basically the marketplace, the theory of change here is that when one supplier who’s doing it right gets in a contract over another supplier who wasn’t doing it right, well the marketplace is going to fix that itself, because morality is no longer part of the equation. It’s really about losing business, and we think capitalism is going to end slavery.

“And part of our value proposition to companies is that, yes, this is a problem. It’s pretty clear it’s a problem for most companies, but we’re going to help you solve this problem in the most efficient way possible, so you don’t feel overwhelmed that you got to go be the police of your supply chain.

“Our business model is that we’re a SAS platform, meaning that we have a database and an interface where we can integrate it into technologies like SAP, which we’re doing this year. And we’re starting to do partnerships with other platform providers or software providers where customers that are already setup on another system can just get access to our data. Yes, we have a world-domination appetite.”

Ginette: Justin is also happy to see that businesses want to change this.”

Justin: “We haven’t met one exec, one client who doesn’t want to do everything they can to address this, both from a risk and reward standpoint and also just from a doing the right thing standpoint. They just don’t have a way to do it.”

Curtis: “It’s really encouraging that businesses want to make this change, and that big data can help them do this. And big data is only going to get better. We asked Justin what he sees as the next step in this space, and this is what he had to say.”

Justin: “The wild west in terms of data and human rights and the marketplace is proximate data,”

Curtis: “Proximate data is just data that’s closer to the problem.”

Justin: “So you know, everyone wants to know about the one ship off the coast of Thailand that’s got slaves on it. That’s, frankly, very, very hard to procure that data, right, because slavery is a behavior. It’s not something you can track in the water or in the air. So to me that is the that’s the next level of data around this, around any issue, quite frankly, is proximate data and trying to track that, and look, we’re going start figuring that out. I don’t think it’s all going to be drones and flying around and like, but there are those happening. There are drones following ships in Indonesia and elsewhere. If someone was just coming up and looking at how to get that kind of more proximate, rich data, and procure that in a way that’s efficient and not having to sequester drones.”

Curtis: “Justin and his team have done an incredible job using data to tackle this issue, but there’s still an immense amount of work to be done. This is a global problem that, unfortunately, is incredibly complicated and difficult to fix, and we’ve perhaps only scratched the very surface. But Justin still has hope.”

Justin: “I got to go be a part of where we pulled a number of Nepalese boys out of a textile mile outside of Deli. These kids had been kidnapped and had been working inside this textile mill for, you know, three years, day and night, every day they sleep under their tables, and they just get up and start beading textiles that we had data was being exported, not just locally consumed, but exported, so once we got the kids to the after-care facility, and I got to interview one of the little boys, and he was very adamant that he was professional, and that he was good at what he does, and once we got through that, I asked him if he wanted to go to school, and he said, ‘yes,’ he’d never been, and I asked him, did he want to see his mom and dad again, and he said ‘yes,’ he hadn’t seen them in three years, and I said, ‘well is there anything you want to do when you get older?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I want to do what you do.’ And that actually gives me a lot of hope because I actually believe that the world does want to change. Change isn’t as scary and as volatile as we think it is. And small, small degrees of change, like using software to procure the goods for your business is probably very small degrees of change in the moral arc of the universe, but those degrees start to add up.”

Ginette: “So a large looming question might be, ‘so, what can I do?’ How can I be part of the change, even if it’s in a small way? The problem is really complicated, but one of the best things you can do is become more informed. One way to do this is to be aware of what forced labor looks like near you.

“We reached out to a prominent organization in the space, Hope for Justice, based in the UK, and they gave us some interesting information back. Forced labour occurs in many industries, but particularly those with lots of cash transactions, low skill requirements, and high workforce turnover. This can look like car wash facilities, nail salons, construction, factories, recycling and waste processing, leaflet delivery, food production, and agriculture.

“They also gave us further information about the demographics of people that are usually targeted: Traffickers target the vulnerable. Those most vulnerable include those with little or no family or community support networks, such as homeless people, those in dire poverty, those with learning difficulties, people with mental health problems, substance addiction, those who do not speak the local language, and so on. But this is not an exhaustive list, and basically anyone can fall victim to traffickers. We have rescued everyone from young children to people in their 60s, men and women, entire families.”

Curtis: “And if you haven’t taken the survey yet, go to slaveryfootprint.org and get more information there. Be more informed and spread the word because the more people that are informed about this, the better people can fight it. Have other people go to the website, and share it with others.”

“If anyone has thoughts or opinions on this episode afterward, tweet at us at @vaultanalytics or send us an email to ginette@vaultanalytics.com, G-I-N-E-T-T-E, or curtis@vaultanalytics.com.”

Ginette: “Thanks for listening. If you’re interested in hearing more from our Q&A with Hope for Justice, we’ve posted their answers to our website at vaultanalytics.com.”

Some Sources


Notes from Our Q&A with Hope for Justice:

Besides sexual exploitation, what industries are you finding in the UK that have the highest amounts of forced labor?

Forced labour occurs in many industries, but particularly those with lots of cash transactions, low skill requirements and high workforce turnover. These include car wash facilities, nail bars / nail salons, construction, factories, recycling and waste processing, leaflet delivery, food production and agriculture.

Is there a demographic most vulnerable to forced labor?

Traffickers target the vulnerable, there is no doubt about that. Those most vulnerable include those with little or no family or community support networks, such as the homeless, those in dire poverty, those with learning difficulties, people with mental health problems, substance addiction, those who do not speak the local language, and so on. But this is not an exhaustive list, anyone can fall victim to traffickers. We have rescued everyone from young children to people in their 60s, men and women, entire families.

How can companies best identify and eradicate slave labour from their supply chains, in your professional opinion?

It is not an easy task, and most companies will need help from a professional organisation such as Hope for Justice – people with frontline experience of how slave labour manifests itself in supply chains, the checks and steps missed by even well-run and ethical organisations, and how traffickers use loopholes and shortcuts to control the work, pay and identity documents of victims. But the first step towards eradication is awareness – it is important that companies acknowledge the risks and take board-level action to investigate all areas of their own operations and supply chains.

Are you seeing any innovations in the data space to help companies eradicate this from supply chains?

In truth most of our work is with people rather than data, but there are certainly forensic methods that can be used to help spot some of the most common indicators. We are also working with recruitment agencies, banks and others to investigate payslips, labour contracts and so on to flag up incidents of forced labour.

Is there an updated estimate of how many people are forced into slave labor in the UK? In the world?

It is a hidden crime with few firm figures. The best UK estimate, used by the government, is 10,000 to 13,000 victims of modern slavery, which includes forced labour, sex trafficking and domestic servitude, as well as things like forced criminal activity (e.g. forced cannabis cultivation, forced pickpocketing). The latest National Crime Agency statistics, released two weeks ago, showed that 3,805 potential victims were submitted to the ‘National Referral Mechanism’ in 2016, a 17% increase on 2015. There were 108 different nationalities; the top three were Albania, Vietnam and the UK.

Worldwide, we use the International Labor Organization’s estimate of 20.9 million people in modern slavery, which includes forced labour, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and child labour. Other estimates put the figure even higher, e.g. the Global Slavery Index says 45.8 million people.

Is there a survivor’s story that stands out to you throughout your years of working with people forced into labor?

Edward* (name changed for his protection) was rescued from forced labour in the UK

This is his story, in his own words:

“I needed to earn enough money for my daughter for her school, and I was told about a good job in England, so me and two others took it. We were picked up and driven to a port; we went on a ferry to England. When we arrived they said we were going to work for good money, so we worked very hard, for long hours, to finish the job well. But when we finished, we never got paid. Instead we were locked up.

“They forced us to do more work. They would beat us and threaten us if we didn’t finish the work. We couldn’t go anywhere because they took our passports, ID and money. We were stuck. I felt hopeless, totally powerless. We would fix up houses, do gardening … I had to move heavy things that I could not even lift. I had to work from the early morning until very, very late 7 days a week. All we were given was some tobacco, alcohol, bread and butter for the week, so that’s how we lived.

“At this time, I knew I was a slave.

“I felt very sick, hungry and tired all the time. I was sold, from person to person, bartered for right in front of my face. I heard one man say I wasn’t even worth £300. I felt worthless. Like rubbish on the floor. I wished that I could die, that it could all be behind. I just wanted a painless death.

“I finally decided I would rather be killed trying to escape than stay.

“I knew one man who lived a long way away. I had no money or transport so I had to walk as fast as I could or they would catch me. My legs are bad because they beat me but I had to keep going. I walked for 10 days straight with no stopping. I walked about 200 miles, but I was very scared and lost so walked a lot extra.

“Look! These are the shoes I found, they are the wrong size but they are all I had!

“When I was walking all I could think about was [the traffickers]. They are chasing me, they will find me. I was very worried. I was very worried. I thought of my daughter too. I had let her down so much. I felt shameful. I was very cold, hungry and alone. I couldn’t find help anywhere. Eventually I reached the city of my friend, but had no way to find him.

“I knew this was the end for me.

“I was very happy when I met with Hope for Justice. I knew someone was going to help me! They gave me new clothes, food and a very comfortable bed. They took me to London to get a new passport. Hope for Justice have been very good to me. I didn’t expect any help, I thought I was finished.

“I am so happy to be free, to be alive!”