The Forgotten Scourge
The Mekong Club’s Doug Silin ’96 seeks to conquer human trafficking and slavery
Life amid the tin-roof hovels that carpet Kenya’s densely packed Kibera slum made no small imprint on Doug (Ornstein) Silin ’96. It was his junior year, and the Vassar geography and anthropology major’s study-abroad experience forced him to challenge his assumptions about the world by meeting residents living against a backdrop of garbage, crowding, illness, and unremitting poverty.
“Through no effort of my own, I was born into a safe environment with unlimited opportunities,” the Oregon native says. “My greatest worries growing up were inconsequential compared to those faced by people who, through no lack of effort on their own, grew up in Kibera.”
An attorney for the Hong Kong offices of Western Union, the financial and communications company, Silin believes that people with skills are obligated to help where they can. While working toward his law degree at Brooklyn Law School, he took part in a securities arbitration clinic in which he successfully recovered the savings of an immigrant family whose broker had fraudulently traded, and subsequently lost, their funds. He later helped a Chinese woman obtain U.S. citizenship by invoking the Violence Against Women Act.
Silin has since found a new calling, this one with a global reach. In April 2011, he became a volunteer with the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit group that is fighting human trafficking and slavery. The problem is staggering in its scope: The United Nations estimates that 26 million people worldwide—a third of them in the Mekong region nations of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand—have been kidnapped into the sex trade or tricked into accepting work from which they can never leave. Common examples include textile sweatshops where women work behind locked doors for little or no pay. They may leave only if they pay a “debt” to their employer for occupying space in the factory. Few can meet these ransoms. In another scenario, men are forced to work up to 19 hours a day on fishing boats, where, if they complain, they risk being thrown overboard. Sexual slaves include girls as young as 12 years old who are kidnapped from their families and moved to another country to work in the sex trade.
It’s a scourge that’s little discussed and easily misunderstood, says Silin. “What is in people’s minds is exploitive labor or low wages, but this is literally slavery. It’s a whole different animal. Intellectually, we could argue low wages and exploitive labor from both sides. With slavery, there’s no debate.” Slaves generate $32 billion in annual profits while often working in perilous conditions, according to club reports.
Silin is one of two attorneys (along with club co-founder David Hall-Jones, managing partner of the Winston & Strawn LLP law firm in Hong Kong) who plan to combat the practice by raising awareness among manufacturers and consumers alike and, ultimately, seeking business reforms. One of Silin’s first contributions was bringing to light the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, which went into effect January 1 of this year. The act requires manufacturers doing business in California (and those with annual global sales of more than $100 million) to disclose their efforts to rid slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains.
Until now, there have been few financial risks facing businesses involved in activities that, while illegal, often aren’t prosecuted by host countries. By requiring more transparency, however, legislation supporters are optimistic that manufacturers will comply or risk losing business in the lucrative American marketplace. As a club board member, Silin says he eventually will solicit pro bono work from Asian law firms in hopes of raising slavery and trafficking awareness among businesses in the Mekong region, in large part by publicizing the California law. The club also is considering developing a “slave-free” logo that could be imprinted on legitimately manufactured goods. While Hall-Jones said he knew of the California legislation, “we didn’t focus on it until Doug explained its importance, honestly speaking. This is really his baby. He got the concept right for us, and has really been the brains behind it. We are now getting into execution mode, preparing presentations and newsletters that we’ll make available to the private sector.”
The group’s co-founder, Matt Friedman, is the regional project manager of the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in Bangkok. He speaks highly of Silin’s abiding desire to dent the slave trade. He says, “Over the past 12 months, Doug has demonstrated a great passion for coming up with new ideas and approaches that will address the problem in ways the United Nations wouldn’t understand—as in how to reach out to the private sector, what to say to them, and how to help them understand their role.”
Silin’s involvement with the Mekong Club came after his wife, Anne Silin ’96, came across a newspaper article highlighting the birth of the group and brought it to his attention. Advocating for the downtrodden is second nature to her husband, she says. “Doug is motivated by the fact we’ve been blessed by so many opportunities. He has these skills and wants to give back,” says Anne, an art history major at Vassar who sells French wine to China and is teaching wine-tasting classes in Hong Kong. The couple met as sophomores, while sitting on opposite couches outside the Rose Parlor. Doug later proposed marriage to Anne on those same couches. (Doug Silin, née Ornstein, took his wife’s surname when the couple married eight years ago. “Vassar teaches us to be different,” Anne quips.) The pair also traveled to Russia together in Vassar’s International Study Travel program. Doug’s travels—he’s been to 35 countries—have played a critical role in his personal development, Anne says.
“When we travel, Doug wants to have these small, intimate conversations with people,” she adds. “He has an interest in different human characters.”
Doug Silin’s international perspective has brought him to embody a mantra: “If you’re a guest in an environment, you owe something to that environment,” he says. The challenges at hand are daunting, but less overwhelming than if nothing was being done, he adds.
It’s an approach that Friedman and other members of the Mekong Club can get behind. “Doug is a regular guy who stepped up,” says Friedman. “He heard about a problem and, without hesitation, said, ‘Bring it on. I am in. Let’s fix this thing.’ If more people were to take this stance, the problem could easily be solved.”
For more information on The Mekong Club, visit www.themekongclub.org
Andrew Faught is a freelance writer based in Fresno, Calif. He has covered politics, education, and human-interest stories for newspapers in California and Arizona. He is a former staff writer for Occidental College in Los Angeles.