Meenal Sachdev: Fighting for Social Responsibility in the Modern World

Sunetra Senior Monday 12th December 2016 18:51 EST

At a time when some of us may feel disempowered by the complex issues in the world, Meenal and her team at the Shiva Foundation are bringing the power of personal action back to the fore. Co-founder and Director of the Foundation, and the first Indian female councillor of Hertsmere, Meenal has drawn from her own experience in the social impact, government and the hospitality sectors (she is also Head of Sustainability for Shiva Hotels), to fight the systemic issue of human trafficking across the UK. “Since the passing of the Modern Slavery Act last year, I believe the government is making it their priority to combat trafficking,” Meenal Sachdev told us. “There comes a point where we must ask ourselves as individuals what we can do for the cause with the immediate resources at our disposal. This need not be a grand action to start off with, but a simple response and desire to do something, with an appreciation of the skills, resources and time we already have to hand. My husband and I started Shiva Foundation in 2012 because we were absolutely horrified at the hidden issue of human exploitation happening on our own doorstep; 45.8million people are enslaved across the world. It’s actually easier to smuggle humans into the country than drugs.  Once we built some knowledge about the issue, we decided to use what we knew best to kick-start the change. From training the Shiva hotels’ front of house staff in anti-trafficking, to bringing on board our suppliers, we are slowly growing the initiatives within our own hotel group and across the industry more broadly in order to achieve an identifiable national shift.”  


Last month also saw Meenal unveiling the Stop Slavery Network for the Hotel Industry at the Trust Women conference with an emphasis on information sharing and collaborative change. Meenal shared that, “You cannot be successful in combating an atrocity as wide-spread and entrenched as human trafficking if you are alienating those who could have been working alongside you. Traffickers are gangmasters, and are unnervingly organised so we need every possible institution working together in the same organised way – police, social services, NGOs, businesses, and policy-makers.” In this way Meenal shows us systems that can seem overwhelming and stubbornly bureaucratic can at once inspire a great call to community. “There’s only so much a legal framework can achieve,” the councillor aptly stated. “We all have a duty to be aware, and I think that is the more positive path too. We need to go outside of our comfort zones, because we will not be able to find our role in tackling this (or any other) social issue otherwise. If we want to see an eradication of human trafficking in our lifetime, and for that matter, environmental issues and so on, we need to wake up, come together and recognise our part in life as civic investors.” Indeed, Meenal shares her hope that in due course Shiva Foundation’s best practice model will be ready for adoption by the hospitality industry, and perhaps beyond. In addition to her work with hotels, Meenal is also working towards a Hertforshire wide anti-trafficking initiative.

 Could you please tell us more about your Stop Slavery Network?

The network will comprise of Shiva Hotels and several other large brands, including Hilton and Bespoke Hotels. We will be meeting quarterly to establish a platform similar to the likes of retail platform Stronger Together to facilitate the exchange of information. We hope this network will go beyond simply putting pressure on brands but provide a support system where change is required. It will also have the added benefit of customers being able to know who supports the cause and who doesn’t.

 How do you tackle the specific issue of sexual exploitation in the hotels?

The International Labour Organisation has stated that 21% of all trafficking cases involve sexual exploitation, and hotels are a hub for this. We have a two pronged approach in place for this, which includes both specially training staff in this area to teach them to recognise the signs and also making sure there is a local support network available, ensuring effective action. Police and social service contacts are put in place here.

Tell us more about the research process for this anti-trafficking project? It must have been immense.

When we first started, we took it very slowly. We wanted to be precise: what would be the right intervention? Who exactly was responsible? Because human trafficking and modern slavery are huge global issues, we had to come to it with a very open mindset. The other issue was that we were delving into a topic that had been previously under-investigated. Even in terms of policy, it hasn’t been clear until the last few months what statutory requirements might look like for local governments and stakeholders because of the lack of data. But we worked thoroughly to build up a cross-network dialogue, had many conversations, and worked tirelessly with different bodies. The final approach included working with our hotels, rather than having a top-down approach, and looking carefully and collaboratively at the supply chains in which we operate. It’s been an interesting journey and we hope we can lead by example. 

Is your final goal a globally united anti-trafficking network?

I’d say our overarching strength is the thoroughness of our approach, its integrity and our investment into partnerships. The process to us is as important as the outcome. As long as we continue to do that, we’ll go on challenging human trafficking.

What were your motivations for becoming councillor for Hertsmere?

Whilst I’d participated in social impact work in India and Africa, I knew little about the work on the ground in the UK. There was a particular incident, when I became aware that residents in my area were having to use a food bank, and didn’t have food to eat for the next few days. It was shocking. I thought I must be able to affect change in my own area and that I had a duty to give back in some way. Especially for a country I call home -  that’s educated me and done so much for me. The other motivation was my children. I wear my mum hat proudly. I wanted to be able to show my boys the value of community service: to take them canvassing and show them the importance of community work and public service so that they may make informed and careful decisions about their future careers and lives. I do believe the onus is on parents to teach their children that they can shape the world in positive and meaningful ways. 

Finally, have you had a particularly memorable moment in your life?

My entire family (Both on my side and my husband’s side) is very philanthropic and their giving has always been a source of inspiration for me. My Guru, Morari Bapu has placed the ideals of Truth Love and Compassion deep within the structure of my life.

One particular experience that has gone a long way in shaping who I am today was when my father encouraged me to go on an independent trip to India for a year when I was 18. There were no mobile phones or email at the time and I will never forget just how challenging that year was and yet out of that came immense personal growth. That year has shaped many of my decisions, including co-founding Connect India, which ran service based and leadership oriented programmes for Young British Indians.

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