The role of technology in fighting forced labour By Sam Walker

Forced labour is a global problem. Just in September of this year, the International Labour Organisation reported that there are an estimated 27.6 million people involved in Forced Labour, a figure 2.7 million times higher than that reported in 2016.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic impact have contributed to this, increasing the vulnerability of people, and worsening several of the underlying drivers of forced labour including poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Climate change, armed conflicts and an increase in the cost of living have further increased the vulnerability of people and threaten to push this figure higher.

Fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) is one of the industries more prone to forced labour. Consumers want cheap goods, with manufacturers and retailers needing to manufacture these quickly, in large quantities and at low-cost.

This has driven demand for a large, cheap supply of people, often leading to the movement of manufacturing to countries where there is an abundant supply of labour at low-cost. But these areas also tend to have less regulatory controls in place to prevent forced labour. Additionally, the fluctuating availability of raw materials is also pushing up prices, exerting further pressure on companies to find opportunities for lower-costs and driving them into positions where forced labour maybe more likely to occur.

With increasing risk, companies have an ever-important role to play in the fight against forced labour. New innovations and processes are required to identify situations where people are being exploited, so it can be prevented and victims can be supported. Technology has played a key role in this, providing increased access to information and the circulation of this through communication technology.

This has made it harder for companies to hide unethical practices in their supply chain: think of Gap and Nike who were both exposed due to this. Technology is continuing to provide a number of opportunities to allow organisations to identify and prevent forced labour in their supply chains. We explored three of the best current technologies for this.

1. Smartphone Apps

Almost 84% of the worlds population own a smartphone providing opportunities for companies to directly communicate with people working in their supply chains. Smartphone apps empower vulnerable workers to provide direct feedback on their working conditions and report concerns.

For companies, apps can provide a platform where information on workers rights can be shared, training can be delivered, and advice and help services can be provided in a range of languages, making the information more widely accessible. This can increase the level of transparency within the supply chain and provide people with a way to report and get out of situations where they are exploited.

2. Blockchain

A relatively new technology that provides the ability to record and preserve information in a digital ledger of transactions. The data is stored between various systems of every transaction, owned by different players rather than one single system owner by an individual, making it nearly impossible for the data to be corrupted (by a single company for example).

This element makes the application of blockchain to supply chains ideal in that all parties are able to access the information in the ledger, leaving nowhere to hide any shady business practices. The technology has already been adopted by big players including Unilever to improve transparency, who are using blockchain to verify the sustainability of their tea.

3. Artificial Intelligence 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) refers to the development of computers to be able to perform tasks that simulate human intelligence. Within the context of forced labour, AI can help identify trends or employment practices that are more commonly associated with corrupt behaviours. This is done using proxy variables which can be used to create risk models and estimate vulnerability, avoiding the need for more time-consuming and costly surveys.

AI has already been adopted in a number of situations to identify forced labour; SAP Ariba is one such example, providing an AI programme that uses hundreds of data points – this including media reports, auditor reports, whistle-blowers etc. – to flag possible Forced Labour violations and highlight high-risk countries.

New and emerging technologies are providing opportunities to further tackle forced labour and support victims, namely through improving communication and transparency in the supply chain. However, technology needs to be deployed effectively to make a significant impact, starting with ensuring that relevant parties are trained and knowledgeable on how to use the technology themselves.

For smartphone apps, this means considering the availability of internet connectivity and ensuring that these apps can be easily navigated and provided in a range of languages. For Blockchain and AI, the quality of the data being collected needs to be considered carefully due to the influence this can have on how effectively forced labour can be identified in supply chains.

Thus, technology can offer a solution to identifying Forced Labour and supporting victims however, ultimately, it cannot be seen as a quick-fix solution.

Interested in how we can support your modern slavery and forced labour strategy? Get in touch!

For more information

Sam Walker
Consultant Researcher

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