Unveiling the Resolute Stance of Businesses against Human Trafficking and Exploitation

**Empowering the Private Sector to Combat Human Trafficking: An Interview with Mariana Ruenes**

**Mariana Ruenes: Fighting Human Trafficking from a Young Age**

Mariana Ruenes, founder of a Mexico City-based organization dedicated to ending modern-day slavery, has been working tirelessly since she was 17 years old to combat human trafficking. Through her organization, she partners with businesses in key industries to identify, report, and prevent human trafficking and exploitation throughout Latin America. In an interview with Ashoka’s Maria Merola, Ruenes discusses her journey and the importance of engaging the private sector in the fight against human trafficking.

**Shifting Focus to Partnering with Businesses**

Initially, Ruenes’s focus was on raising awareness about human trafficking in general. However, after realizing the significant role that legitimate businesses play in supporting this illicit crime, she decided to shift her strategy and engage the private sector. Her approach involves gathering evidence, creating a database, and conducting comprehensive research to map the exact patterns of trafficking. Armed with this information, she approaches businesses and highlights the percentage of trafficking happening within their industry, emphasizing their responsibility to combat it.

**Industries Affected by Human Trafficking**

Ruenes explains that certain industries are more affected by human trafficking than others. Key sectors such as agriculture, fishing, construction, and domestic services account for at least 40% of modern slavery and labor exploitation. Additionally, she warns that social media platforms and the travel and tourism industries are also at risk of intersecting with human trafficking.

**Recommendations for Companies**

To combat human trafficking and exploitation within their operations, Ruenes advises companies to evaluate their risks and be transparent about their findings. Adopting preventive measures and due diligence practices is crucial for maintaining a zero-tolerance policy towards modern slavery. Ruenes encourages businesses to seek help and expertise from organizations like hers, emphasizing the need for tailored programs that take into account the challenges faced by implementing partners.

**Working with the Hotel Sector**

Ruenes’s organization collaborated with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB Invest) to assess the risks faced by the hotel sector in Mexico. Based on the assessment, they are developing best practices and a certification program for small and medium-sized hotel enterprises. This initiative aims to prevent sexual exploitation within hotel facilities and address risky labor practices affecting vulnerable workers.

**Engaging with Hoteliers**

To better understand the challenges faced by independent hotel owners, Ruenes’s organization surveyed over 200 SME hotel owners. The survey revealed their limited access to international certifications, lack of resources for staff training, and distrust for authorities. Ruenes emphasizes the importance of policy co-design, the use of new technologies, and partnership building to address these challenges effectively.

**Partnerships with Both Independent Owners and Big Companies**

In addition to working with independent business owners, Ruenes’s organization has formed partnerships with big companies like Uber. The mobility and extensive knowledge of Uber drivers allow them to identify and report instances of trafficking. Over 200,000 drivers annually receive training on how to identify and respond to trafficking, thanks to this partnership. Ruenes emphasizes the role of technology in experimenting with different communication strategies and impact evaluation approaches.

**A Mindset Shift and the Importance of Sustainability**

Ruenes aims to bring about a mindset shift within the private sector and among consumers of services and goods. She highlights the interconnectedness of our planet’s health and human rights, stressing the need for businesses to view sustainability more broadly. Companies must consider the negative consequences of their operations and products and take proactive measures to prevent exploitation. For the tourism sector to be truly sustainable, hotels need to focus on their impact on the environment and the local communities in which they operate.

**Addressing Modern Slavery**

Ruenes explains her increased use of the term “modern slavery” instead of “human trafficking.” This terminology allows for a broader definition that includes preventing sexual exploitation within the context of organized crime. The modern slavery framework, initially developed in the U.K. and now adopted internationally, prompts businesses to honestly evaluate their operations and create long-term plans to address the risks of slavery within their business models.

**Engaging the Private Sector: A Promising Future**

Ruenes expresses her optimism about the growing awareness and interest within the private sector regarding transparency, innovation, and corporate social responsibility. She believes that by recognizing and highlighting businesses that are making progress in combating human trafficking, the fight against modern-day slavery can continue to evolve. In Mexico and beyond, Ruenes and her organization are actively working towards a future where businesses and consumers prioritize human rights and sustainability.

*Mariana Ruenes is an Ashoka Fellow. Read more about her background and impact here: [Mariana Ruenes Ashoka Fellow](*

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