Mariana Ruenes has worked since the age of 17 to end modern slavery. Today, his Mexico City-based organization partners with the private sector to help companies in key sectors identify, report and ultimately prevent human trafficking and exploitation throughout Latin America. Here she speaks with Maria Merola of Ashoka.
Maria Merola: Mariana, luckily we all hear about human trafficking as one of the most important human rights issues of our time. Can I ask you what was your entry point?
Marianne Ruenes: I come from the NGO world and learned about human trafficking directly from survivors. In the beginning, one story in particular helped me understand the problem – Anita’s story. As a minor, Anita was exploited for domestic work in the house where she lived. She was also sexually exploited by a family member in different hotels in Mexico City and the metropolitan area. She was advertised in a national newspaper and moved around town by car. In one of the hotels, a member of staff, a room cleaner, saw indicators and felt something was wrong. He helped Anita escape but got fired for it. Taken together, this story shows how an illicit crime like human trafficking can rely on legitimate businesses to operate.
Merola: How did you move from a broader strategy to a business-centric strategy?
Streets: The first time I approached someone from the private sector was a major bus company with a line that goes through the center of the country. I explained to the manager that trafficking rings move victims along the bus route and that we need to train their employees to identify and report what is happening. The person asked me, “What is your evidence?” It took a little while, but we gathered the evidence. We started systematizing the stories, building a database, getting really good at research – so we could map out exactly how, when and where the trafficking was happening. Today, we approach businesses and say, for example, “Look, 20% of this type of traffic happens in your business. You have a responsibility to commit to it and protect your business – and we’ll help you do that.
Merola: Are some sectors more affected than others?
Streets: Yes. At least 40% of modern slavery and labor exploitation have been identified in global economies such as agriculture, fishing, construction and domestic services. But we also know that social media platforms and the travel and tourism industries are at risk of intersecting with some form of trafficking or exploitation.
Merola: What actions do you advise companies to take?
Streets: Assess your risks and be transparent. Adopt prevention and due diligence practices for zero tolerance for modern slavery – throughout your operations and business partnerships. Reach out to partners like us for help and expertise. We’ve had to become experts in some of these areas, and we’ve seen that many programs fail because the design process doesn’t consider the challenges faced by those implementing them, such as hotel owners.
Together with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB Invest), we published a risk assessment of the hotel sector in Mexico last year. Based on these results, we are developing best practices and certification for the predominantly SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) hospitality sector to help prevent sexual exploitation in their facilities and combat workplace practices. risk with vulnerable workers.
Merola: Have you talked to hoteliers, got their point of view?
Streets: Yes absolutely. We interviewed over 200 small business hotel owners and learned a lot from them. We listened to the obstacles they face. More than 90% say they want to take action against trafficking and exploitation — they believe it prevents further organized crime activity and that certification can have commercial value. Despite this, they have limited access to international certifications, few resources to train staff and a great deal of distrust of authorities. Due to their isolation, they may not be aware of best practices. This is where our work of co-designing policies, using new technologies and building partnerships comes into play.
Merola: You work with independent entrepreneurs, but also with large companies.
Streets: Correct. For example, we have worked with Uber for five years. It was our first partnership with the private sector. Why Uber? Because drivers and couriers have great mobility. They know the cities better than anyone, they see everything. Each year, through our partnership, around 200,000 drivers learn how to safely identify and report trafficking with specific indicators – and technology allows us to experiment with different communication strategies and impact assessment approaches. The initiative has spread to Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador.
Merola: Through these efforts and campaigns, are you ultimately looking for a change in mentality?
Streets: Yes — within the private sector and among the general public as consumers of services and goods. Until recently, the whole conversation about sustainability revolved around the environment. But the health of our planet and our human rights — they are intertwined. We want to help businesses and consumers think about sustainability in a broad sense. Companies must learn to prevent the negative consequences of their operations and products. For the tourism sector to be sustainable, hotels need to think about their impact on both the environment and the local communities they hire – who tend to be populations vulnerable to sexual and labor exploitation. Hotels can realize, for example, that by providing women and migrant workers with good working conditions and growth opportunities, they could also ease their employment and turnover crisis, which affects cities like Cancun or Merida.
Merola: Mariana, I notice that you use the term “modern slavery” as much or more than “human trafficking”. For what?
Streets: Yes, I use modern slavery more and more, because it includes the prevention of sexual exploitation within the framework of organized crime, and also makes it possible to report on situations that deviate from “decent work” towards more serious forms of exploitation. In fact, the modern slavery framework was designed with the private sector in mind – originally developed in the UK, it has been adopted internationally and will continue to evolve. He’s asking companies to take a candid look at their operations and say, “That’s our plan to deal with those risks in our business model. That doesn’t mean we can do that immediately because supply chains can be complicated. But here is our 3-5 year plan.
A few years ago, the notion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was mainly something to be delivered outside the company and our counterparts were in HR. Today? Well, today we have a different conversation with security and policy teams within enterprises. They are increasingly aware of and interested in transparency and innovation. It’s our job to recognize companies that are on the right track and show what’s possible. And I’m hopeful to see where that leads in Mexico.
Mariana Ruenes is an Ashoka member. Read learn more about his journey and impact.