This blog post first appeared on The Freedom Fund’s blog on February 5, 2018. Click here for the original.

The scourge of modern slavery entrapping over 40 million people around the world underscores the need for more radical and innovative approaches to tackling the challenge at scale. A growing ecosystem of technologies, ranging from mobile phones that facilitate worker engagement to traceability software to blockchain and the Internet of Things, offers new opportunities to create more responsible supply chains. New research on the root causes of modern slavery has yielded practical insights into the potential for harnessing diverse technologies to increase workers’ agency and build responsible supply chains.

Leveraging technology to strengthen workers’ agency

Virtually everyone has a mobile phone. Their ubiquity provides a more inclusive, affordable and robust mechanism to engage workers in assessing labour and social risks, creating effective grievance mechanisms. Digital worker surveys can reach a much larger and more representative group of workers when compared to traditional worker interviews conducted during audits. Furthermore, in a continuous and anonymous way, these surveys produce honest and real-time insights into modern slavery risks.

Digital worker engagement also makes grievance mechanisms easier to set up for employers and more accessible to workers. It offers a more effective suite of tools than last century’s empty suggestion boxes and the costly, intimidating outsourced hotlines. Reports of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo to Hollywood’s sexual assault scandals illustrate the need for new approaches to identifying and addressing labour and human rights violations.

New technologies foster a data-driven system for measuring and exchanging information across supply chains, which can inform decision making from procurement departments to labour standards enforcement agencies and investors.

The quantification of actual working conditions offers an opportunity to build and publish comparable and credible benchmarks to drive labour, social and business performance. Employers and buyers can benchmark themselves against peers in their geography, industry and specific category. The combination of worker generated data with satellite imagery in the palm oil industry or with machine sensors in factories opens up new ways of merging data to mitigate labour and social risks, driving improvements in the workplace.

The correlation between labour conditions and key performance indicators such as staff turnover, productivity, employee satisfaction or injury rates in the workplace also makes a good business case for worker engagement. Blockchain offers a robust infrastructure to exchange and verify supply chains’ non-financial data and analytics.

The Emerging Supply Tech Ecosystem

New regulations on human trafficking and modern slavery, as well as increasing expectations from consumers and financial and insurance companies, are quickly accelerating the demand for labour and social analytics. The emergence of a “responsible supply tech” ecosystem of social enterprises partnering with local civil society organizations, supported by philanthropic and private capital, is paving the way for a transformation of supply chains analytics.

Worker-centred applications are key to the sustained engagement and impact of responsible supply tech. A report by GSMAunderscores the significant digital gender gap, with 200 million fewer women than men owning mobile phones. High illiteracy rates and the prevalence of undocumented migrant workers across various supply chains represent additional challenges to create truly inclusive worker engagement tools for vulnerable workers. The Worker Engagement Supported by Technology – or WEST Principles – offer practical guidance to design effective programs and interventions.

Concerns about workers’ privacy also pose challenges. Some new regulations affirm governments’ right to monitor citizen communications, including popular social media channels such as WeChat in China. The evolving privacy and data security landscape with new regulations coming into force, such as EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, will reinforce individual protections and require large social media and information technology companies to upgrade their practices.

Suppliers and employers can take advantage of existing technologies to reduce the burden of compliance and improve key business outcomes such as retention and satisfaction. But it is important to remember that technology can catalyse, but not substitute, the partnerships needed to deliver meaningful change for workers.

Creating trusted worker engagement tools may require involving local civil society organizations and worker representatives to overcome fears of retaliation, increasing pressure to provide an adequate remedy to problems. Industry associations will play a catalytic role in accelerating the convergence of benchmarks to reduce the burden of compliance, fostering a race to the top on social and labour standards, and shifting resources to solve the problem and create worker-first supply chains.

Tackling modern slavery and human trafficking requires systemic change to unchain millions of vulnerable workers. Technology provides no quick or easy fix to the problem, but it offers a new set of powerful tools to protect workers and create more responsible supply chains. 

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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