Tips on Investigating Trafficking and Modern Slavery

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Photo: Orythys, Pixabay

Modern slavery is a multi-billion dollar industry, trapping millions of people in forced labor or sex work around the world. But their stories can be difficult to investigate, with documentation hidden in opaque global supply chains and trafficking survivors afraid to speak about exploitative employers.

These investigations require a great deal of perseverance, skill and sensitivity. At the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference, the journalists behind hard-hitting reports from India, Taiwan, and Kuwait gave their advice for investigating trafficking. 

Story ideas may be hidden in plain sight

When Thomson Reuters Foundation correspondent Roli Srivastava went to an illegal sand mine on the outskirts of Mumbai, she was dubious whether she would find a story there. The environmental impact and criminal elements of the sand industry had already been “done to death” in the media, she said. 

But when she got there, she saw that the sand miners were going into the polluted creek hundreds of times a day to manually scoop out sand. “Who were the sand miners?” she thought. “They were the unexplored part of the story.”  She soon discovered that they were migrants from tribal villages around India. 

In general, Srivastava advised journalists to pay attention to jobs shunned by local workers, as well as the bottom rung of global or domestic supply chains. “If you notice that local workers have started saying no to a job because they know it is dangerous, then find out who is working there,” she said. 

Look out for cold cases that you could investigate, said Sherry Lee, editor-in-chief of The Reporter. The non-profit media outlet in Taiwan started investigating the exploitation of undocumented Indonesian fishermen on Taiwanese vessels in 2017, in collaboration with Indonesian magazine Tempo. 

They began with the death of one fisherman, apparently from illness, whose case had long been closed. By tracking down the witnesses, they were able to establish that he had been abused and authorities re-opened the case.  “It was a well known case but there were lots of unanswered questions,” Lee said. “There were a lot of footprints left behind.” 

Spend time with survivors

Aisha Elgayar, an Egyptian journalist based in Kuwait, also began her investigation in Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas by finding a new approach to a familiar topic. Indian nurses were being trafficked to the country but there had been no thorough investigation into the mechanics of their recruitment and exploitation. Elgayar’s first challenge was to convince the nurses to speak with her, especially as she was not from India. 

One of Elgayar’s contacts advised her to approach the nurses differently: Tell them you will not use a camera or recorder, but that all interviews will be done by paper and pen. It helped her gain their trust. 

Most people trapped in slavery do not know that is what is happening to them, explained Srivastava. She uses a checklist of the features of modern slavery to understand if their are enslaved. “I start by asking them questions, like where is your ID? Who keeps your money? Does your employer allow you to move around?” she said. “Then you can connect the dots.”


It’s important to be completely transparent with trafficking survivors about the story you are working on, and seek their informed consent to be featured, Srivastava said. She also cautioned journalists to read up on local laws; for example in India it is strictly prohibited to provide any identifying details of child victims of sexual assault. 

Take the time to get to know survivors, rather than grilling them for details of their abuse, she said. “When you’ve spent a day with [trafficking] survivors, they start to open up, showing you a story or a picture they made,” she said. “These are absolutely precious details.” 

For Lee’s investigation, some fishermen were willing to talk but said they were too busy with work to meet. So the team went to visit their families and get to know their personal stories that way. 

Try to get documents

Each of the journalists stressed the importance of getting hold of any official records or documents that you can, whether that be health records, work contracts, or allegations of abuse. 

This can be one of the hardest parts of connecting local sweatshops to the products sold around the world, said Srivastava. “All these big brands have made statements about cleaning their supply chains,” she said. “But how do you crosscheck that? How do you get the paperwork?” 

If you cannot get documents, you’ll need to corroborate the stories another way, she noted.  Srivastava had a break-through in her investigation into sanding mining when a worker told her: “There have been so many times when I have gone down for sand and touched a body.” She couldn’t get any officials or employers to confirm sand miners were dying in the creek, so she cross-checked the miners’ stories by traveling to their home villages to corroborate the deaths and published the investigation “Drowning for sand” in 2017.

Talk to the brokers

In Taiwan, Lee’s team started discussing the different layers of the fishing supply chain they could investigate. “We thought, maybe there’s a representative agent to recruit these workers,” she said. They sought to talk to as many brokers as possible involved in recruitment of far sea fishermen. 

It was difficult to get them to talk at first, but once a few brokers spoke to them the interviews began to snowball. The journalists realized that the brokers were competitive with each other, which sometimes made them more willing to talk to journalists.  They also found that some brokers wanted to talk to show that they were not the ‘bad guys’. “You have to take advantage of this nice guy mentality,” Lee said. 

Don’t take no for an answer

When Lee was told by the government that did not compile records of deaths on fishing vessels, she looked at what data other countries collect. “Japan has a very transparent database of migrant workers’ deaths,” she said. “So I turned to our government and say look the Japanese government is very transparent, you should do that too.”

One of the biggest challenges in Srivastava’s investigation was the resistance of the sand mining employers to let her speak with the workers. To reach the mining vessels, she needed to take a small boat from the shore, and the companies told her she’d need to pay to go. “They thought they were dissuading me, but I did it,” she said. “I was very polite: I said take your time. I just stood on the edge of the sand until they could see I was not budging until they took me to the boats.”

Revisit the story

It’s important to check back with the trafficking survivors after publication, in order to track whether they faced any retribution and keep authorities accountable for any promises they make. 

For example, Srivastava revisited her story a year later and found that while the sand miners had not been punished, little had improved for them either. The government had promised to offer them alternative jobs after her story was published, but she found none of these jobs had materialized and the government has yet to take action against the employers. 

Charlotte Alfred is an investigative journalist and editor who has reported from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the US. Her work has been featured by HuffPost, De Correspondent, The Guardian, News Deeply, Zeit Online, El Diario, and First Draft, amongst others. 

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