Face of the day


Restarting a new life has been hard for Ralph Simpson and his family, but they don’t miss their old life. CHRIS SKELTON / FAIRFAX NZ

Today’s face of the day is Kiwi solicitor Ralph Simpson, who has taken the road less travelled in order to help victims of sex trafficking in Thailand.

Just reading the witness statement you could feel the boy’s fear. He was under 15 and living on Thailand’s streets when he was brought back to an apartment where two Western men were waiting. There he became their plaything.

In those moments, reading those documents, Ralph Simpson felt angry.

“Those images do haunt you. You feel that nobody gives a damn. That this kid is utterly alone.”

…Eight years ago, Simpson was a partner at Bell Gully, one of the country’s biggest corporate law firms. He was successful, earning a large pay packet. He admits he was “cushy” when he first came across the term “sex trafficking”.

He had a young daughter and the more he learned about the 4.5 million people forced into sexual exploitation through deception or coercion, the more he was appalled by it. While internationally sex-trafficking forms only a small percentage of overall trafficking in labour and industrial work, most of trafficking money does come from the sex trade – an estimated $147 billion according to the International Labour Office. But fewer than 1 per cent of victims are ever rescued or participate in any judicial process.

…”There are other problems where I have nothing to contribute but with this the people who can help the most are police, social workers and lawyers.”

Simpson started talking with a large American organisation that worked in the field when he saw Daniel Walker speak. Walker, not his real name, is an ex-Christchurch police officer, who after leaving the force worked investigating sex trafficking for years. Then he decided to branch out and start his own organisation – Nvader. Walker wants it to become one of the most influential NGOs of its kind and has grand ambitions for it.

Simpson had reached a point in his career where he wondered what was next. Would he become a judge? Would he become a Queen’s Counsel?

“Or was I going to do something that would make a bit more difference?”

He went through a grieving process, he says. He was not going to be a judge. He was not going to earn as much money as his peers. But it was now or never and if it was not now then he was all talk. He imagined himself at the end of his life looking back to these two pathways.

“Which one was going to make me most satisfied? Or which one is going to make me feel like I’ve sold out?”

He picked the former. So he and his wife Joy packed up and last year left Auckland to live in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, where Nvader is based. Simpson is now Nvader’s company director. Joy also started work with an organisation offering counselling and after care for sex trafficking victims.

…It has been difficult adjusting to life in Thailand, Simpson says. It has been an opportunity to get away from the chase for money, personal ambition and prestige. But everything happens slower in Thailand, he says. He was used to going in to meetings and coming away with timeframes and actionable goals.

But five months into the job he found himself frustrated at the lack of progress on a particular case. It involved that 15-year-old street boy and one of those Western men. He was with the police and the FBI. Simpson’s tendency to put timeframes on things did not go over well.

Eventually the sex tourist was arrested. He was sentenced to 10-and-a-half years in prison. A lawyer working for Nvader worked with the Crown to stack up irrefutable evidence suggesting the Westerner had no doubt that the boy was under the age of 15. On the back of this, the victim was able to successfully bring a claim of compensation. But Simpson says there is so much variance in prison sentences for sex trafficking it is hard to predict an outcome. This, however, was a good one.


…”What we are doing is constantly under review. We are always asking what benefits we create. We need to make sure that we aren’t creating net harm … we have to keep making sure we are doing good.”

But others want another life.

He tells the story of Mai who was trafficked five years ago when when was 16. She was living in a rural village and told she could earn money in the city working as a waitress. When she arrived there was no waitressing job and she was forced into sex work.

“She suffered really bad trauma … She wouldn’t want to sleep, she became violent and hostile.”

One of the traffickers was tracked down. They got eight years in prison. Two others were on the run but that went to court two weeks ago. Mai had a breakdown during the trial but by the end of it Simpson says she was glad that she went through helping with it. It incorporated various agencies, including the one his wife works for, to bring the case to light. Simpson says it was a model for how this work can operate.

She also came away with about $10,000 in compensation.

“That is a chance to restart her life,” Simpson says.


– Sunday Star Times