When most people think about slavery, certain images from history spring to mind: such as the slave ships that sailed back and forth between West Africa and the United States throughout the 16th century.
But slavery is still omnipresent in 2019. Many simply aren’t aware of it — like how there are more slaves alive right now than at any other point in human history.
It’s this realisation that prompted Hozier to talk to Nick Grono — CEO of the Freedom Fund and former boss at the Walk Free Foundation — to learn more about how to help those who find themselves trapped in that vicious cycle of forced labour, exploitation, and trafficking.
“Forced labour is illegal,” Grono tells Hozier on the third episode of the Cry Power podcast. “But it happens because ... people wield so much power over vulnerable people.”
In our pilot episode, we heard how Annie Lennox’s personal history of activism was rooted in her family. But Nick Grono’s mum was a nurse and his dad worked in the merchant navy. He started out in his career as a corporate lawyer, a path that led to the opportunity to offer pro bono work on legal aid — an experience that completely opened up his perspective on the lives of the most vulnerable people in his home country of Australia.
“I was very much on the dark side!” Grono says. “But now I’m working at an NGO charity, law is at the heart of everything we do. Slavery is fundamentally illegal under international law. Slavery happens because laws aren’t being enforced.”
There are an estimated 40.3 million slaves alive at the moment — meaning 1 in every 200 people are trapped in some form of modern slavery. From those statistics, 25 million are thought to be stuck in forced labour, meaning for one reason or another they cannot escape a job that pays little to nothing. An additional 15 million are reportedly victims of forced marriage.
Grono is the CEO of the Freedom Fund, which leverages partnerships to invest in the most effective frontline efforts to eradicate modern slavery around the world. In the last five years, it has pumped $15.8 million into 40 charities in northern and southern India to address the systemic causes of forced labour and trafficking — with spectacular results.
Between 2015 and 2018, it reduced the prevalence of households in bonded labour from 56% to 11% across 1,100 target villages. In simpler terms, that meant its work resulted in 125,000 fewer people trapped in modern slavery.
But Freedom United doesn’t have a profile in most of the countries it works in because it wants to empower local communities. Grono says it’s about taking the ego out of the work to focus on humility and delivery: “It’s not about us, it’s about those that we’re serving.”
Grono was also the first CEO for the Walk Free Foundation, an organisation that co-created the Global Slavery Index, the most comprehensive survey ever on human trafficking. However, he insists the data is still not up to scratch — and working out the true scale of the problem is still one of the biggest mountains to climb.
Global Citizen has campaigned extensively on modern slavery in the past, partnering with organisations like Anti-Slavery, Free for Good, Christian Action & Research (CARE), the Co-Op, and the Survivor Alliance to call on the UK government to offer better support systems to those who have been affected by the issue.
Slavery and poverty are interlinked: The UN’s Global Goals demand fair work for fair pay to ensure everybody has the economic freedom to determine their own future. More than 60,000 actions were taken by the public, including 20,000 from Global Citizens, which culminated in the Home Office scrapping a 45-day time limit offered to survivors of slavery.
When it comes to forced labour, Grono tells Hozier that slavery is ubiquitous precisely because the products you buy are cheap. If clothes are inexpensive, it’s because somebody wasn’t paid enough to make them. The discussion inevitably leads to the role of big business — and how change must not be led by consumers, but by corporations making ethical decisions to ensure their product chains are fair and transparent.
“What keeps you hopeful?” Hozier asks Grono during the podcast. “What keeps you optimistic?”
“There’s a sense of staring into the abyss; there’s a sense of guilt too,” Gromo replies. “But we know we can make a huge difference … we can make progress.”
Gromo delves into examples from immense environmental triumphs from India, fantastic lurches forward in Ethiopian garment factories, and hails the opposition to single-use plastics as an issue that has activated consumers as change makers.
“I am by nature an optimist,” he adds. “I do struggle sometimes these days when you look at the political environment and climate emergency with young children. But I still remain optimistic.”
He is still inspired by the groundswell of activism erupting from societies all over the world — in particular from the “madhouse” of the annual UN General Assembly in New York City, where world leaders gather for a week every September to discuss the most pressing international issues ranging from the climate crisis to gender inequality.
It’s also the setting for Global Citizen Festival in Central Park, headlined in 2019 by Queen + Adam Lambert. It was attended this year by 60,000 activists who earned their free tickets by taking action, leading to almost $1 billion committed on stage to end extreme poverty.
“You’ve got Global Citizen there that week, their huge concert,” Grono says. “They’re active behind the scenes trying to mobilise because we all look for those opportunities to get to those who have the power to drive change and find ways of influencing them — be it through music and concerts and mobilisation, be it through meetings, be it through other events. It’s much more of an art than a science.”
Grono wasn’t born to be an activist. He found his path from an unlikely line of work, and simply acted with his conscience on the decisions he found right in front of him. In that vein, he offers some warm words of advice for those listening to the podcast who are perhaps motivated to become activists themselves.
“If you really want to work on social justice and activism, if you really are determined: you can do it,” he urges. “It can be hard ... but there are ways it can be done — and it’s always invariably, hugely rewarding.”
New episodes of Cry Power will now drop every fortnight. Head to GlobalCitizen.org/CryPower to check out the latest episodes, take action on the vital issues discussed in the podcast, and to #PowerTheMovement to end extreme poverty