Mariana Ruenes has been working since she was 17 years old to end modern-day slavery. Now, her Mexico City-based organization partners with the private sector, helping businesses in key industries identify, report, and ultimately prevent human trafficking and exploitation throughout Latin America. Here, she speaks with Ashoka’s Maria Merola.
Maria Merola: Mariana, we’re all thankfully hearing more about human trafficking as one of the most important human rights issues of our time. Can I ask, what was your entry point?
Mariana Ruenes: I come from the NGO world and learned about human trafficking directly from survivors. Early on, one story especially helped me understand the problem — the story of Anita. As a minor, Anita was exploited for domestic work at the house where she lived. She was also sexually exploited by a family member at different hotels in Mexico City and the metropolitan area. She was advertised in a national newspaper and was moved around the city by car. At one of the hotels, a staff person, a room cleaner, saw some indicators and sensed 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 shift from a broader strategy to focusing on businesses?
Ruenes: The first time I approached someone in the private sector, it was an important bus company with a route that goes through the center of the country. I explained to the manager that trafficking networks were moving victims along the bus route and we needed to train their employees to identify and report what was going on. The person asked me, “What’s your evidence?” It took a little while but we gathered the evidence. We started systematizing stories, creating a database, getting really good at doing research — so we could map exactly how, when, and where trafficking was taking place. Today, we approach businesses and say, for example, “Look, 20% of this certain type of trafficking is happening in your business. You have a responsibility to engage with it and protect your company — and we are going to help you do that.”
Merola: Are some industries more affected than others?
Ruenes: Yes. At least 40% of modern slavery and labor exploitation has been identified in global economies such as agriculture, fishing, construction, and domestic services. But we also know that social media platforms and travel and tourism industries are at risk of intersecting with some form of trafficking or exploitation.
Merola: What actions do you advise companies take?
Ruenes: Evaluate your risks and be transparent. Adopt preventive and due diligence practices for zero tolerance of modern slavery — throughout your operations and commercial partnerships. Reach out to partners like us for help and expertise. We’ve had to become experts in some of these sectors and we’ve seen that many programs fail because the design process doesn’t consider the challenges faced by those implementing, such as hotel owners.
With the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB Invest), we published an assessment last year of the risks for the hotel sector in Mexico. Based on those findings, we are developing best practices and a certification for the majority SME (small and medium enterprise) hotel sector to help prevent sexual exploitation in their facilities, and curb risky labor practices with vulnerable workers.
Merola: Have you talked with hoteliers, gotten their perspective?
Ruenes: Yes, absolutely. We surveyed over 200 SME hotel owners and learned so much from them. We’ve listened to the obstacles they face. Over 90% say they want to take action against trafficking and exploitation — they believe that it prevents other organized crime activity and that a certification can have a business value. Even so, they have limited access to international certifications, few resources to train staff, and a lot of distrust for authorities. Due to their isolation, they may be unaware of best practices. That is where our policy co-design work, use of new technologies, and partnership building comes in.
Merola: You work with independent business owners — but also big companies.
Ruenes: Correct. For example, we’ve worked with Uber for five years. It was our first private sector partnership. Why Uber? Because drivers and couriers have high mobility. They know cities better than anyone, they see everything. Annually, due to 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 approaches to impact evaluation. The initiative has expanded to Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador.
Merola: Across these efforts and campaigns, are you ultimately looking for a mindset shift?
Ruenes: 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 our planet’s health and our human rights — they are intertwined. We want to help companies and consumers look at sustainability broadly. Businesses have to learn how to prevent negative consequences of their operations and products. For the tourism sector to be sustainable, hotels need to think about their impact both on the environment as in the local communities where they are hiring — which tend to be populations vulnerable to both sexual and labor exploitation. Hotels may realize, for instance, that by providing women and migrant workers good working conditions and opportunities to grow, they could also mitigate their employment and rotation crisis — that is affecting cities like Cancún or Merida.
Merola: Mariana, I notice you use the term “modern slavery” as much or more than “human trafficking.” Why?
Ruenes: Yes, I use modern slavery more and more, as it includes preventing sexual exploitation in the context of organized crime, and also allows us to account for situations that stray from “decent work” into more severe forms of exploitation. In fact, the modern slavery framework was designed with the private sector in mind — initially developed in the U.K., it has been adopted internationally and will continue evolving. It asks businesses to frankly look at their operations and say, “This is our plan to address these risks in our business model. It doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to do it immediately because supply chains can be complicated. But here’s our 3- to 5-year plan.”
Some 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’re having a different conversation with the safety and policy teams within companies. They are becoming more aware and more interested in transparency and innovation. It’s our work to recognize the businesses that are on the right path and showing what’s possible. And I’m very hopeful to see where it leads to in Mexico.
Mariana Ruenes is an Ashoka Fellow. Read more about her background and impact.