Laura Del Vecchio
King Climbers © King Access @ stock.adobe.com
The Need for Labor Data
Modern slavery is a reality. This affirmation may likely sound odd to many. After years of signs of progress being made in labor conditions, especially considering the work done by unions and industry workers in the 20th-century, it seems absurd to add slavery to modern connotations of living standards. However, several industries are continually exposed by authorities and audits due to detected forced labor or poor working conditions. The Global Slavery Index states that the group of people facing "some kind of modern slavery" is around 46 million. This staggering number represents only the cases they could identify, affirming that many others experiencing modern slavery remain covered under opaque processes.
Modern slavery can happen in many forms. The most traditional one is *descent-based slavery —*similar to colonial times—, where people are treated as property. Other communities are forced to pay their debts with manual labor, sometimes not even knowing what they own to a company or business. This type of modern slavery is commonly identified as debt bondage or bonded labor. Many other individuals are victims of human trafficking, the most discussed and critical type of modern slavery. Here, people suffer from the use of violence, threats, and coercion to move from their country of origin to another nation to exploit their human resources in forced prostitution, marriage, organ removal, labor, and/or criminality.
Most modern slavery cases are found in agriculture and food industries, but others are also identified within the textile sector. A recent notable case is from Zara, a Spanish fast-fashion brand of Inditex group, which was reported to be sourcing clothes from Brazilian workshops with appalling working conditions akin to slavery.
Modern supply chains are intricate. The supply chain system functions on a fake scarcity model, where there is an abundance of products in which a considerable part goes wasted. The majority of human resources used to manage and generate products come from developing countries, and the outcomes are mainly consumed by developed nations. The welfare state many countries relish, cost the lives of other individuals and, oftentimes, entire nations struggling to be inserted in the global economy with minimum dignity and integrity, aiming to be free from exploitation and abuse. Many experts agree that the current economic system follows a postcolonialist archetype, one that endures centuries-old practices as a fairly detrimental legacy from colonial occupation. This points out a question of whether ex-colonies are entirely free from their colonizers or if unequal global trade is thus responsible for severe implications on developing countries related to inequalities in terms of race, class, gender, and other factors.
Being capable to accurately perceive from the top of many companies to the factory level or crop is very much easier announced than accomplished, but several innovative mechanisms are emerging that could change that.
Emerging Technologies Combating Labor Abuse
Over the last decade, the global supply chain has become increasingly dependent on reporting the origins and processes of their products, including the supplier conducts, voluntary standards, such as the Rainforest Alliance Certification (for more information about Sustainability Labels, visit our case study), certification metrics, and indexes measuring environmental and social performance. These standards rely highly on audit inspections, where social and environmental auditors pay in-person visits to factory floors and crop fields, detecting issues like forced labor abuses and environmental pollution, and report back to a centralized unit the results encountered. However, many of these visits were prone to corruption and fraud, leading many non-profit organizations and political militants to find ways to measure and strengthen corporate accountability with the help of emerging technologies.
An initiative established in 2002 by Ros Harvey, founder of the IoT startup The Yield, created the first crowd platform for collecting labor audit data in partnership with the International Finance Corporation and the UN's International Labour Organisation. The tool allows for collection, analysis, and the sharing of data more efficiently, in which workers and non-profit organizations can update labor information to the platform, updating records in real-time and more accurately. Following this plan, the multinational Adidas started to incorporate a Mobile Crowdsensing Platform designed for workers to report abuses on factory levels. This smart application allows employees to anonymously report issues, where the data is later collected and analyzed by certified staff.
The fishing industry faced a recent scandal that was unveiled by the use of emerging technologies. The application Automatic Identification System (AIS), which processes radio signatures sent back to Satellites (commonly known as Satellite-AIS), was used to track the buying and selling of seafood. The non-profit organization Greenpeace managed to track eight refrigerated vessels of Thai fishing boats from the Thai Union, the biggest tuna exporter. The data collected from the broadcasts sent from AIS signals — used to prevent collisions—coming from these 'ghost ships' (as none of the shipping travels were legally recorded), reported that the company shipped more than 2,000 enslaved fishermen. However, the monitoring of these slave shipping containers was not totally accurate as the AIS signals can be turned off. As a solution, the new Global Fishing Watch map released a data and mapping platform using data collected from the Satellite-AIS signals. This platform displays spatial information, providing an almost real-time view of fishing activity around the world.
This scandal led to the company Provenance, a blockchain-based food startup that aims to provide customers information regarding the sources of their products, to join the struggle. The blockchain approach based on Smart Contract substitutes paper records and tags on fish trade and commerce, in which the fishermen send SMS messages to register their catch on the distributed ledger, thus storing immutable data. The identification generated is later transferred to the supplier account, where the authentication procedure is processed automatically.
Opportunities & Challenges
In the wake of forced labor abuse brought to light throughout the world, consumers, investors, the media, and governments are pressuring companies to be accountable for their supply chain and eradicate forced labor within logistical networks. Laws, regulations, and new transparency measures are gaining momentum to verify and certify manufacturing labor practices beyond traditional audits and promote responsible development.
Yet, it is crucial to highlight that these emerging technologies are not a distraction from addressing the root causes of exploitation and abuse. In order to lay down a path towards a future with decent work and economic opportunities for all, this vision would require massive collaboration between legislators, technologists, and civil society to feed the nodes with reliable data and secure victims along the way while stemming the flow of people towards forced labor.
This solution could also offer a historic opportunity to reshape the relationship between business and society towards an accountable economic system for decades to come. It could lead to the co-creation of new architectures of governance beyond the nation-state, in which good governance will not be a mechanism of state control, but a means to sustainably unleash the full and fair capacity of all human beings.