Kiwi working to prevent human trafficking

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Keith Ramsay
/ Categories: Modern Slavery


Sean Hatwell’s experience as a detective fighting organised crime in New Zealand took him to the streets and red-light districts of Thailand, working with Tearfund’s partner to disrupt trafficking rings peddling misery for victims of human trafficking.

On August 17th and 24th, Hatwell will be guest speaker at Tearfund NZ's SAFE Futures charity event in Wellington and Christchurch, helping to raise awareness of modern slavery. 

The former detective in the National Organised Crime Group (NOCG) of the New Zealand Police headed up the Organised Crime Team for Tearfund’s partner LIFT International in Thailand—a Kiwi organisation dedicated to combating human trafficking and exploitation.

Hatwell grew up in Tauranga and attended Tauranga Boys’ College before going to university in Auckland to study psychology and sociology. At the age of 23, he decided to join the New Zealand Police.

Hatwell grew his experience in the NOCG, investigating high-end organised crimes such as drug trafficking and money laundering. When a former colleague and friend returned to New Zealand after working for LIFT, it sparked his interest in the issue of human trafficking, and this became the launching pad for his move to Thailand.

He says he wanted to use his skills for the greater good. “I didn’t know much about human trafficking at the time, but I knew how to investigate and about organised crime and its structures and tiers. It turns out, human trafficking is pretty much the same.”

LIFT workers documenting evidence from a human trafficking case.


However, what struck Hatwell about human trafficking was the human cost. “Unlike drugs, it’s people who are being bought and sold who have feelings, hopes and dreams and families. That’s the human impact.”

One of the biggest things that Hatwell likes about LIFT’s approach is that the organisation wants to address the structure of organised crime rather than just target the “lowest hanging fruit” such as rescuing people from traffickers. The organised crime team work undercover and using a wide range of investigative tools to gather enough evidence to bring to the police. LIFT also offers training to police to help them in human trafficking investigations. Hatwell says that the Thai police were wary of the organisation, but they now have a good and trusted relationship. At first, we would give them the evidence we had gathered to investigate cases, but now the police often approach us to assist with investigations on their behalf.

LIFT workers gathering evidence from electronic devices.


One of the highlights of Hatwell’s time in Thailand was helping to dismantle a criminal ring that was trafficking women from Africa. Victims were brought to Thailand after their traffickers fraudulently obtained visas on their behalf.

Hatwell says they were deceived into thinking they were arriving in the country for jobs in hair salons and the like, but in reality, they were being trafficked for sex work. In the process of coming to Thailand, they incurred a big debt for their travel and accommodation that they couldn’t repay. They were forced into the sex industry because there was no other way to pay their debt.

“You could go to some streets in Bangkok and see upwards of a hundred African women plying for trade, but they would fall deeper into debt because they were incurring more costs and couldn’t earn enough. When Sean’s team approached the police, they said they were reluctant to do anything about it because the women weren’t locked up, they were free to move about. This was because the police didn’t commonly recognise debt bondage as a method of trafficking, he says. “But we kept beating on the door and we found a cop who wanted to take it on. We felt like a dog chasing a car, but we actually caught it.” As a consequence of evidence gathered by LIFT in the investigation, more stringent measures were implemented by the Thai government, which stopped the trafficking syndicates from being able to readily obtain the visas which facilitated the trafficking. They also managed to prosecute some of the traffickers involved in the case.

“Within three months, all the African women were gone.”

One of the most challenging things for Hatwell was the online sexual exploitation of children. He says as a father, it is distressing to have to look through files and footage of children being exploited. “You can’t un-see it.”

Hatwell and his family are now back in Tauranga and he is working for an organisation undertaking ethical labour investigations in New Zealand industry supply chains. Hatwell says that Kiwis are not very aware of trafficking in New Zealand. They tend to believe that it doesn’t happen here, but it does. New Zealand was just downgraded in this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) for failing to meet the minimum standards to prevent trafficking for not prosecuting labour trafficking.

“It’s definitely happening here, I have seen it, especially in industries that employ subcontractors. Hatwell believes a Modern Slavery Act would be one good piece of legislation that would reduce labour trafficking.

“People in many industries shift the responsibility of labour exploitation onto those who hire the labourers—it’s their problem, they are the ones hiring the staff. But with a Modern Slavery Act, large companies could be more easily prosecuted for being negligent toward what is happening in their supply chains, and could no longer simply lay the blame on unscrupulous third party contractors. Law changes like this can help to reduce labour trafficking.”


Come and hear more at SAFE Futures: An evening with Sean Hatwell.


Event details: 
Over drinks and nibbles, Modern Slavery expert Sean Hatwell will introduce us to Tearfund's Safe, Aware, Free and Empowered (SAFE) programme through stories from the field. The SAFE programme aims to reduce human trafficking and exploitation in five countries through Farming & Enterprise and Modern Slavery initiatives.

Locations & Venues: 
17th August | Christchurch, Aldersgate Centre
24th August | Wellington, Mojo Coffee (Asteron Centre) 

Cost: $35

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