266 – Rescuing Boys Labor Trafficked in the Fishing Industry, with Chris Field


Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Chris Field from Mercy Project in Ghana, an organization that works with the community through education and empowerment to combat labor trafficking and build stronger communities.

Chris Field

Chris Field is the Founder and Executive Director of Mercy Project. He traveled to Ghana for the first time in August 2009 and has since been on a mission to bring new life to children in slavery as well as empower those around him to make the world a better place. Chris and his wife Stacey have five children He is the author of Disrupting for Good and A Billion Hours of Good.

Key Points

  • Redefining the word “rescue” to become about empowerment and new opportunities.
  • Holistic, community-centered approach to rescuing children from labor trafficking and reuniting them with family.
  • On the ground staff are Ghanaians that understand and have relationships with their communities.
  • Empowering and developing sustainable solutions for the community and families to build stronger safety networks for the children.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 266, Rescuing Boys Labor Trafficked in the Fishing Industry with Chris Field.

Production Credits [00:00:11] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:39] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, I’m so looking forward to this conversation today, like I am for for so many of our conversations because I learn something new and one thing I realized in preparation for today’s conversation about the fishing industry is I know very little about this industry. And of course, as we’ve talked about so often on the show, there’s so many different aspects of trafficking and it touches, unfortunately, every industry in some way. Today, we’re going to study the issues even more so we can ultimately be a voice and make a difference in all the work that we’re doing. And I’m so glad to welcome Chris Field to the show today. He is the founder and executive director of Mercy Project. He traveled to Ghana for the first time in August 2009 and has since been on a mission to bring new life to children in slavery, as well as empower those around him to make the world a better place. Chris and his wife, Stacey, have five children, and he is the author of Disrupting for Good and a Billion Hours of Good. Chris, we’re so glad to have you on the show today.

Chris [00:01:51] Dave, Sandie, thank you guys so much for having me. It’s truly an honor to be with you.

Sandie [00:01:56] Well, Dave, I already had one conversation with Chris and we couldn’t fit it all into a half an hour, so we’re going to dive right in and do our best today. Let’s start by reframing the word rescue. Chris, typically I imagine people running out of a burning house and the fireman running in to rescue any other occupants. But your definition is a little different. Can you expand on that?

Chris [00:02:31] Yeah, of course. I mean, first, let me say we’ve had as a community and as an organization, we’ve had dozens of hours of conversation around this word because we don’t want it to connote this savior complex of some sort and we’ve really struggled over the word. Is there a better word to explain what it is that happens in a community when children who have been bought for 20, 30, 40 dollars and fish 12, 13, 14 hours a day when they’re able to go back to their families and their source communities, their original community and begin going to school? How do we explain that in a different way? And because it’s not that dramatic fire burning and it’s not us, you know, showing up with our hands on our hips like, behold, give us your children. I mean, it’s like we’ve struggle with that word. And where we’ve eventually landed on this topic is when you think about where the children are today or where they have been, the ones that we’ve already helped in Ghana, they really do have the opportunity to be rescued from a certain life. And I think what’s beautiful about this is we’re not the ones doing the rescue. We are there and we are part of the process. But because of our community empowerment, it’s really the community that they’re working in that actually at the minimum gets to join arms with us and be part of rescuing those children out of this child labor and this child trafficking into the life that they deserve. And so that’s really how we look at that word; where are they and now, where do they get to go? And that’s what they’re really being rescued from, is a life with no hope and a life with no future into one where education and family and reunification and empowerment are the key elements instead of working all day on a fishing boat.

Sandie [00:04:53] Okay, so let’s start at the beginning of that very holistic process. And what’s the first thing that you do? Because obviously you don’t go scoop the kids?

Chris [00:05:06] That’s right. So when I very first went to Ghana, I was visiting another organization and I was very bothered by the process. I mean, I didn’t have any experience in this space, so it’s probably a little arrogance of me that I would, you know, dare to look at another process and think, Well, they shouldn’t do that. But essentially, people were buying the children out of slavery, which just created this black market of children. You know, the fishermen could buy low and sell high to these western organizations and they could, you know, make a lot of profit on this. That made no sense to me because as soon as those kids were out of the community, nothing had changed. The fishermen still had to find a way to fish, and they didn’t have any new tools.

Sandie [00:05:59] And where did they take those kids?

Chris [00:06:02] Well, in those cases, the kids were almost always taken to an orphanage, which was ironic because they’re not orphans. And so the whole system just seemed, it just seemed broken to me, and what bothered me the most was I just kept thinking, this is the opposite of sustainable. I mean, the problem, the reason the fishermen have the children is for labor. And if we’ve not solved the labor issue, if we’ve not solved the root issue of poverty, then the money they get from selling a child is only going to last them a short time and they’re going to be right back where they started. And so that was really the impetus to start Mercy Project over 11 years ago. And what we’ve done is go into these fishing communities where, by the way, approximately 75 percent of the traffickers were actually trafficked children themselves. So they grew up as little fisher boys and fisher girls on Lake Volta. And so they’re doing the only thing they’ve known how to do since they were five, six, seven, eight years old. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle. And we go into these communities, we begin relationships, and our question for the people in the community is always a very simple one: how’s fishing going for you? And they always say it’s not going well. The lake is overfished. We catch less fish than our fathers, and they caught less fish than their fathers. And we say, OK, we know a better way to fish, and we would like to teach you that way to fish. But there is something else that’s important here. We don’t think children should work all day, and these children we see on your boats right now, small boys and girls with muscles that are overgrown because of the work they do. We think they should go back to their families, so we’re willing to teach you a new business. We’re willing to partner with you in doing aquaculture, cage fishing, which will actually grow more fish than you’re able to catch right now. But we’re only going to partner with you if you will voluntarily release these children back into their biological families and it’s a commitment your entire community has to make together. And if only half of you want to make it. We’re going to go find another community. And then that begins a lot of internal conversation. You can imagine some people think it’s a great idea. Some people think it’s a pretty bad idea. And this is where it’s really important that we’ve established a relationship with the chief and the elders of the community because if they can see the vision, they’re typically the most educated people in the community in many cases, if they can see the future, and it’s a better future with these cages than with the children, they can typically help the community understand that future. And so that’s what we’ve done now. 20 communities averaging in size three to 500 people and 207 children that have been voluntarily released by these villages, reunited with their biological families and all attending school now. Not a single one that has been retrafficked, which is something we’re really, really proud of.

Sandie [00:09:24] And I have so many questions about. So when you are taking a child that’s been released and reunifying them with their biological family, what does that look like because they came from a situation that was obviously very precarious?

Chris [00:09:43] That’s right. Yeah, it’s it’s complicated, as you can imagine, which is why I think people stick non-orphaned children in orphanages because at the surface, that feels more simple. In this case, though, we really believe in family, and we believe parents in most cases are the best suited to raise their children, especially if they have the tools they need to be good parents. And so what we do, we have investigators who go out and find these families, which is no small task. And once we’ve identified the families and we ask them, we tell them where the child is, the kind of labor they’re doing. In most cases, they have no idea the conditions their child is working in, how much they’re working. And they typically it’s many, many, many single moms whose husbands either passed away or left and they weren’t able to feed their children. They were struggling. And so they sent one to work on the lake so that the child could at least have food. That’s what the mothers tell us all the time. They said, we know if they were fishing, they could at least eat some small fish every day. And we say, OK, that is true. They do have food, but that’s pretty much all they have. They’re not going to school, and the mothers are typically surprised. They don’t have the clothes they need. They don’t have any of the things they need. The future is bleak, and we would like to reunite your family to bring your child home, but it’s going to take some hard work. Emotionally, it’s going to take some hard work and physically for you. We need to understand how you make money right now. And we need to help you become more stable. And so I have these amazing Ghanaian social workers all over the country. After the parents are identified and agreed for the children to come home, they begin working alongside these parents to help them stabilize the family and whatever. Whatever way that looks like, it’s various. Every family’s different, sometimes microloans. Sometimes it’s simple things like helping them find a more affordable place to live. Sometimes it’s helping them get their national health ID cards and other things like that. Government services that are offered that they’re not taking advantage of because they can’t sign their name or they don’t know which office to go to or they don’t have transportation. So I mean, it’s a really a holistic, like we dig in and actually, we don’t dig in, we get in the ditch with the families and come alongside them and become deeply entrenched in their lives and become friends. I mean, truly become friends with them. And so the first time the children meet their parents again after what’s usually been a couple of years is at a rehabilitation center where the children go after they’re rescued and they’re usually there three to six months. It’s Ghanaian run. The man who founded it was actually a trafficked child himself in Ghana, which is a pretty amazing story. And this is where the children begin to receive psychological care. They are able to talk about and process their experiences with people who can help them do that, have been trained to help them do that. They have a safe place to sleep. They can learn how to eat clean food, good food. They can learn how to drink filtered water. They’ve been drinking lake water for so long that many of them actually get sick. About half the kids that are rescued have some sort of preventable disease that could be life threatening if not treated. So malaria, bilharzia, all kinds of things. And so they get medicine. They go to the doctor and we get them healthy again, and it’s there at that neutral site that they get to see their moms and dads again for the first time. And it’s a pretty emotional scene to see a mother and a child reunited, or a father and a child reunited after a couple of years. And there’s a lot that’s not said that doesn’t need to be said in that first embrace. And it’s a long road and it doesn’t just go away. The children have been hurt and they’re confused, and they want to understand what happened. But that’s why our social workers play such an incredibly important role is that they’re trained and able to help navigate as the family comes back together. So then the children go back home a few months after that first meeting, and our social workers are there every step of the way: enrolling the children in school, walking alongside the parents, ensuring their financial stability, et cetera. And in many cases, doing parenting lessons and telling the kids to not be knuckleheads and just being an advocate and a friend to those families in whatever way that looks like uniquely for each one of them.

Sandie [00:14:30] So you mentioned some of the reasons why they, the parents hadn’t access to resources that were available because, you know, I go on government websites and UN websites and I know, you know, there are children’s rights to education and things. So it’s surprising to me that these parents can’t sign their names and then that that becomes a roadblock to actually getting the resources that they need. So is this something that then, you start teaching the parents more of those kinds of skills as well?

Chris [00:15:11] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, you take a place like Ghana where education is compulsory and it is paid for by the government, but that hasn’t always been the case. And if you’re from a poor family that needs you, quote needs you to labor in the fields instead of going to school, they’re going to have you labor in the fields. I mean, that’s how your family’s going to survive. And you know, we have this sense, especially in Western culture, in America where I am. It’s just like, we can’t even fathom a parent doing that, and we’re just so removed from what surviving looks like. I mean, it’s wonderful for children to do math questions and learn about science and to learn to read and write. But when you’re literally not sure how you’re going to eat that day, those things are not a priority, and even compulsory education, by the way, you can’t go to school if you don’t have on a uniform. And you have to have books. And you can’t go barefoot to school. And you can’t learn when you’re hungry and you haven’t had food in 24 hour. I mean, so it’s a great idea at one level to say, well, schools free, every kid should go to school. It’s like absolutely, every kid should go to school. We believe in that wholeheartedly. But we’ve oversimplified that a bit to believe that that just means any child can walk into a school naked and somehow be a thriving young student. And by the time we engage with the children, many of them have never been to a day of school in their lives. There are 9, 10, 11, 12 years old. They don’t know how to write their name. They don’t know the letters of the alphabet. They don’t know how to count to 10. And so, Ghana, specifically, places children by level instead of by age. So we have 12 year old sitting in a classroom with five year old’s, and it’s pretty demotivating just to be 12 and to see your peers on the playground and they’re like, Oh, it’s the boy that’s in KG. And it’s like, Oh, really? And so I mean, one of the things we do is we bring in private tutors from the day the child comes home to try to catch them up to other students their age because we don’t want them to be so demotivated that they stop going to school. But here’s what’s beautiful. We have kids who’ve taught their parents how to read, we have kids who’ve taught their parents the alphabet, and we have moms that say to us, I never believed my child would be able to go to senior high school. You’ve given me hope, not just for that child, but for all my other children. That what I never believed to be true, might actually happen for my family. And even just having a child enrolled in school with the proper uniform, with shoes, with books, with a tutor which cost about $40 a month, by the way, it’s a very low cost. That alone gives a parent such an enormous amount of hope that they didn’t have before. It shows them a future that they didn’t think was possible. And if they can grab on to just a tiny little bit of hope, it’s pretty amazing and how resilient these families are and can be just with that little piece of hope.

Sandie [00:18:28] So what I’m picking up in our conversation and looking at your website, which by the way, is MercyProject.net, I think, is sustainability is a high priority in every aspect of your approach. And so you mentioned in passing microloans. And I think as I’m processing this, that these kids will be vulnerable again if the parents don’t have a better income base. So how do you do family based microloans?

Chris [00:19:06] Yeah. So a lot of it is identifying those families where a micro loan is actually going to make a big difference. They’re running a business, but for whatever reason, they’re not successful. I mean, I have social workers have literally sat in the market with a mother with a piece of paper and a pencil, teaching her how to add up the income that she brought in, minus her expenses and saying, Listen, you’ve been here 10 hours today and you’ve lost 17 Ghana CDs. This business won’t work. You can’t do this. Something has to change; your expenses have to go down or your income has to go up. Is there a better place to sell? Oh yes, there’s this other place about a half mile away, a couple of kilometers where I might, they have much more traffic there. OK, well, why aren’t you there? I just always came to this place. OK, let’s go to that place and let’s see what happens. Or a small micro loan like one woman in particular. Names Rejoice. She’s a mother of four young children. Her husband passed away. And she had a little restaurant, little chop bar, little street food, and she was an amazing cook. People loved her food when they ate it. The problem was nobody ate it. She was in a terrible part of town for selling food because there was no disposable income in her town. So we helped her move to, we used a loan to help her move to an emerging part of the city right across from a huge construction project. Well, you know who works in construction? People that have to eat food and Rejoice’s food reminded those men of their mother’s food back home in their small villages. And then we also bought her up a dorm refrigerator so that she could keep her extra food overnight instead of having to throw it away. We also taught her how to buy in quantity, in bulk, so that she could drive her expenses down. So I mean, just two or three small things that nobody had ever taught her. Nobody ever explained to her. She had no way of knowing these things completely transformed her business, and she was cooking the same food. She was working just as hard as she was before. And now she’s profitable. And she actually surprised us and paid for her next year’s rent. You have to pay all at once a year in advance, by the way, in Ghana, which is very difficult for low income people. She actually paid her next year’s rent without us knowing it. And she came to us with her receipts and she said, Look what I’ve done because of you and because of your help and because you believed in me. I’ve actually been saving every month and I went ahead and paid my next year’s rent in full, and I didn’t even need you guys to help me again. And to me, that’s empowerment. Is taking what was already being done and just helping it to be a little bit more efficient, adding a little bit more of tools, adding a little bit more efficiency to it, helping it scale. And so that’s, I mean, that’s just one example, but we’re doing that across a number of our families where a micro loan for the family, you know, makes sense in that way.

Sandie [00:22:22] And you said social workers, social service integration is part of everything. So once those kids go to their families, you’re still involved in monitoring and making sure there aren’t any gaps that are going to put them back in the same space they were before. So how many social workers do you have?

Chris [00:22:49] We have nine social workers in Ghana, 15 total Ghanaian staff. So we have field workers, investigators and social workers. And the social workers are placed geographically around the country so that they’re within an hour or an hour and a half of each family, and they are deeply connected in that child’s community. If the child is part of a church, the social worker gets to know the pastor of the church. With whatever school the child is, the social worker gets to know their teachers and becomes another set of eyes and ears. Hey, if this child is having trouble, if this child is not making good choices, if this child’s having bad conduct, I want you to let me know. We need to have a conversation and they become really fully integrated into that child’s life. And so each social worker just has a group of children that are their responsibility based on geography, and they are able to take care of those kids in their families by being deeply ingrained in their lives. Now that does roll off at some point, Sandie. I want to be clear. I mean, we’re deep enough into this thing at this point that the cadence of how often those social workers are engaging those families definitely lessens as the child gets older and the family becomes more stable. So when they’re first reintegrated, social workers are there multiple times a week, and then it becomes weekly, and then bi monthly, and then monthly. And now we have children. They’ve been part of the program for six, seven years. They’re in high school now. Their parents have sustainable work. You know, we’re always seeing those kids a couple of times a year when we bring all the children together in that area for a regional celebration or a little Christmas get together or something like that, always still talking to them, text or phone calls. Because everyone has cell phones now in Ghana, which is pretty amazing, but still engage with them, but not having to actually physically lay eyes on them. And frankly, at some point, the children learn to advocate for themselves. 15 or 16 year old, although they’re not an adults, they’re able to express to their social worker if something’s wrong and if they need some assistance and they have such a deep and long lasting relationship at that point with the social worker that they don’t hesitate to say, Hey, there’s a problem. My parents aren’t doing well, and you know, they’re telling me I might need to leave the house again. It’s like, Well, OK, let let’s I’ll be there tomorrow. Let’s sit down and figure out what’s going on and see if we can’t solve this problem. So that turn happens at a different pace for every family. But it definitely happens over time.

Sandie [00:25:30] And how long did it take you to build a locally lead team like that?

Chris [00:25:35] Yeah, great question. So we were seven years into from founding, from the founding of Mercy Project, it took seven years until we had no Americans on the ground in Ghana and were lead by all all Ghanaians, specifically now a country director named Francis, who does a fantastic job. So that was a huge goal of ours, by the way. Day one, we said we need to work ourselves out of a job. This is not our country. This we don’t understand will never understand Ghana like the people of Ghana. So our job is to start the work, to figure out the problems, to listen, and then to empower the next generation of Ghanaian leaders to take over Ghana programs and then our role becomes supporting them strategically and financially.

Sandie [00:26:29] So that’s a great segway as we start to wrap this up. Tell us a little bit about the context, the fishing business, who sells the fish. Because there’s no one size fits all approach, and I know that there are people listening to this trying to figure out how to replicate it. And I just want to mention episode 247, Ben Skinner talked about perspectives on transformation in labor trafficking, and this sounds like a classic case study of what that looks like. So who sells the fish?

Chris [00:27:06] Yeah, so the community is already selling fish that they catch, and they just don’t have very many of them because the fishing is not great. So now they have lots of fish, and so the community already knows, the women already know how to salt the fish, they already know how to smoke the fish, they already know the local market, so a lot of what we do is just supply and demand 101. We help them understand, Hey, don’t take all these fish to one market. You can’t flood a market with 10000– By the way, 10000 fish is what we grow in each cage, tilapia. And so we said, Look, you can’t do a huge harvest and take 10000 fish to a market or it’s going to drive your prices down. There’s not enough buyers. And by the way, we learned a lot of these lessons the hard way. It would be, we could spend episodes of the podcast talking about the mistakes we’ve made. It’s easy to hear someone like this in 30 minutes and say, Wow, that sounds really nice. It’s like, Oh man, if I could tell you all the dumb things I’ve done in the last 11 years and ways I misunderstood or ways I underestimated how challenging something would be. I mean, I could write books on those stories. But the people already know how to sell the fish, now we’re just teaching them how to sell the fish smarter and with a higher rate. And honestly, part of this is them believing that the fish are theirs and not ours. So we had that problem at the beginning where they would go to the market and come back and we’d say how much you sell the fish for, and they would tell us some amount, and we’d say, Wait, that’s way below market value. What happened there? Like, well, the first person walked up and said they’d pay it, and I thought it’d be fine. I mean, it’s, you know, it’s more money than I’m used to having. It’s like, Oh, no, they’re still looking at this as like Mercy Project’s fish, not the community’s fish. And so we did a lot of work with them in goal setting. OK. What does your community need? What does your community lack? How could your community thrive? Well, we need a nurse. We need a health clinic. We need a school. We need a teacher. We need a motorcycle so we can get people to and from the hospital when somebody gets really sick or a lady’s about to have a baby. Like, OK, do you know how much those costs? No, we don’t know. Great. We come back. Hey, it’s this much. Guess what? That’s one year a fish. Do you think you guys can save this money collectively and sell the fish at the market, save this money and then buy that thing? One year from now, you can have your own school in this community for your own biological children who’ve never been to school either. They say, Wow, let’s do that. So now they know, Hey, we got to sell the fish at the highest value because these are our fish and we’re going for something. We want to set a goal, help them set goals that they’re motivated to chase. So it’s not our fish, it’s not our money, it’s their fish and their money and their future. And that was a big shift for us. It took a couple of cycles for us to discover that shift. And once we did, though, and they were excited about what that money could buy beyond just feeding their families, then it became really exciting because they were all moving towards that goal together.

Sandie [00:30:28] Wow. Chris Field, this has been an inspiring conversation, and I love it that you know where all 207 of those children are right now. And it seems to me that there are children in those communities that will never be trafficked because the communities are stronger. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.

Chris [00:30:55] Absolutely. I’m honored to do it. Thank you for the work that you all do and thank you to your listeners who I know are, they care enough to be engaged on a hard topic like this. And our story in Ghana is not the story of all trafficking, but I hope it’s a reminder of how complex an issue this is. And I will go to my deathbed beating the drum that we must, we must match complex issues with complex solutions. And so I hope people will feel inspired in whatever space they find themselves in to figure out how they can create more sustainable solutions to match the complexity of the trafficking problems that they are most passionate about.

Sandie [00:31:38] That’s great, thank you.

Dave [00:31:40] Thank you both for this conversation. Sandie, you really zeroed on the word that I really appreciate about what Chris said so much. Just capturing the complexity of this and sharing the struggles. So much of this, there’s so many. There’s so much complexity. There’s so many variables for all of us in our work to end human trafficking. And I hope, as Chris said, that this conversation is yet another data point for each one of us to helps us to move forward and to take the next step. And I’m inviting you also to take the next step. If you haven’t already, take a moment to go online, visit our website at endinghumantrafficking.org. You’ll find all the links to the resources we talked about in this conversation to the work that Chris is doing, of course, and of course, all of our other episodes as well. Endinghumantrafficking.org for all those details, you can also reach out to us with any questions that have come up at feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org. A reminder that the next Ensure Justice conference is coming up March 4th and 5th, 2022. You can find details to register early at GCWJ.org/ensurejustice. Feel free to join us there for more details on the conference, you’ll be hearing more about that in coming episodes. We’ll be back again in two weeks for our next conversation. Thanks, as always, Sandie.

Sandie [00:32:57] Thanks, Dave.

Dave [00:32:58] Take care, everybody.

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