Real Leaders

Sold for $90: The Girl Who Went from Slave to CEO


  • Rani Hong has gone from a slave to the CEO of a global organization, who speaks regularly at the United Nations.
  • Moving from a victim to a leader, she is leading an international awareness campaign on human trafficking to help stamp it out.
  • She believes that many companies might support child labor without even realizing it.
  • Hong and her husband have developed the Freedom Seal – a qualification awarded to companies that have examined their supply chains and found them free of slave labor.

At age seven, Rani Hong was taken from her mother by a kindly neighbor who promised to give her an education, something her poverty-stricken family could never afford. After a few months, Hong disappeared, sold into slavery by her supposed caregivers, who were actually a front for a child slavery syndicate. It would be 21 years before Hong would see her mother again.

Worldwide it’s estimated that between 21 and 30 million people are victims of human trafficking. And it’s not something restricted to poor countries either, at least 127 countries have active human trafficking networks, with recruitment often carried out by nationals of the same country as the victims. In the United States more than 100,000 children are trafficked every year.

Hong is one of the lucky ones. After being shipped out of slavery in India to Canada, she eventually found freedom, but didn’t wallow in victimhood for long. Instead, she decided to devote the rest of her life to raising awareness around human trafficking and slavery. She founded the Tronie Foundation with her husband Trong Hong, and together they have set out to make companies aware of their role in the slave trade.

“I tell my story because there are millions of children just like the little girl that I was – enslaved, imprisoned, beaten and not able to speak. I speak for them, to give them a voice,” says Hong.

While there are thousands of dedicated people and organizations around the world fighting human trafficking and helping victims, the Tronie Foundation is the only one founded by two former victims. They are working to include a “survivor voice” in the solution to this global scourge. While most are shocked by the statistics and scale of modern-day slavery, people have responded most strongly to their firsthand account of what happened to them.

rani-hong-2 slave to CEO

While 79 percent of human trafficking is made up of girls and women who are sexually exploited, the remaining 21 percent are forced labor. “That’s around 21 million people,” says Hong. “Another 19 million victims are exploited by private individuals and enterprises.”

Many CEOs will condemn slavery without realizing that their company might be part of the problem. Unknown to them, forced labor might be part of a supply chain that produces their goods.

“You’ll find children in the agricultural industry, in the chocolate industry, forced labour within our supply chains,” says Hong. Private individuals and enterprises are exploiting million of victims, and we need to bring this to the attention of CEOs around the world. It can destroy reputations and damage brands among consumers,” she explains. The abuse sometimes happens in a third world country, out of sight to Western corporations, where a child might carry bricks for construction, or pick cocoa beans that we eventually eat as chocolate.

“I don’t know how much I was sold for, but today we know of children being sold for as little as US$90,” says Hong. Human trafficking is a massive industry worth an estimated US$150 billion, yet the price that trafficked children pay is incalculable, their lives are ruined and they rarely return to any semblance of normality. “ If they’re lucky and break free of slavery, the trauma, physical and psychological damage is for life,” says Hong.

While Hong was a wreck at first from her ordeal, it took the support and encouragement of a woman in Washington to help her believe in herself again and to help get her voice heard. “Someone like her, a mentor, has really helped,” says Hong. “Love and care from others has helped me heal.”

Hong served as a UN special advisor for a global initiative to fight human trafficking. She has presented several UN general assembly speeches, one of which saw her lead a global plan of action in 190 countries. Not bad for someone who was once kept in a cage and traumatized to the point that her captors considered her worthless. Hong also initiated the first World Day Against Trafficking and Persons, which is now marked on July 30th every year.

The increased awareness is welcome, but there’s still a long way to go. Some countries impose $500 fines on companies caught exploiting children. “That’s just a slap on the wrist,” says Hong. Convictions are rising, but in most countries conviction rates rarely exceed 1.5 per 100,000. This is even below the conviction rate for kidnapping in Europe, with 2007-08 statistics showing that two out of every five countries globally had not recorded a single conviction for human trafficking.

The Tronie Foundation has created a more proactive way of fighting this scourge. Called the Freedom Seal, the goal is to help businesses become more active in identifying and fighting human trafficking. The Freedom Seal is designed as a visual marker that businesses can use to clearly communicate to consumers that they have due diligence mechanisms in place and are actively taking steps to prevent forced labor and human trafficking in their practices. Company’s love boasting about awards and accolades and this is one that Hong hopes CEOs will want to add to their trophy cabinets.

It’s not enough for only companies to get involved, countries need to legislate too. South Africa recently banned children travelling through its borders without parents presenting unabridged birth certificates. The U.K. passed the Modern Slavery Act in March, an act closely modeled on the California Transparency Act, that requires companies to report how they are eliminate forced labour within supply chains.

“Research shows that if criminal syndicates and gangs are involved in human trafficking, there is a high likelihood that they’re also involved in drug smuggling, the trade of endangered species and illegal weapons,” says Hong.

“When we fight human trafficking, we are also preventing other illegal activities. Businesses and consumers can really make a positive difference by taking action,” she says. If Rani Hong can do it, then so can we.

8 signs of possible modern day slavery

  1. Deception in the recruitment process and/or false promises about the terms and conditions of employment.
  2. Excessive recruitment fees charged to workers.
  3. Confiscated or withheld identity documents or other valuable personal possessions.
  4. Withheld or unpaid wages.
  5. Unexplained or excessive deductions from wages resulting in induced indebtedness.
  6. Imprisonment or physical confinement in the workplace or related premises such as employer-operated residences.
  7. Deprivation of food, shelter or other necessities.
  8. Physical or sexual abuse, harassment or psychological intimidation.

Learn more about the Tronie Foundation or apply for the Freedom Seal here

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