Promise and Limits of Remote Monitoring in Addressing Forced and Child Labour

2 dezembro 2020
Investigação inovadora

Sophie Zinser  | Research Assistant, United Nations University Institute in Macau
Hannah Thinyane  | Principal Research Fellow, United Nations University Institute in Macau
Phoebe Ewen  | Programme Director, The Mekong Club
Leanne Melnyk  | Head of Human and Labour Rights Governance, Diginex Solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic is placing further strain on the ability of the public and private sector to monitor working conditions in global supply chains. Containment measures and travel restrictions linked to COVID-19 have made conventional in-person social audits or assessments, which rely on an auditor physically traveling to a factory or site, nearly impossible.

While many corporate social compliance audits have been postponed or cancelled in 2020, scandals exposing modern slavery’s grip on global labour persist.  These exposés include cramped living conditions in worker dormitories and other labour rights violations linked to the operations or supply chains of fast fashion brands and other global companies. In the wake of these challenges, many companies are exploring how social impact technology can be used as a means of “virtually” monitoring working conditions in global supply chains throughout the pandemic.

Garment Factory. Soroush Zargar/Unsplash.

COVID-19 and Social Compliance

COVID-19 is accelerating two existing trends. First, vulnerabilities to forced labour and child labour are increasing at a time when many brands and retailers are unable to conduct in-person social compliance monitoring. Second, technology is becoming increasingly integral to social compliance audits, providing solutions to combat at least some of the challenges confronting in-person visits to factories and other manufacturing sites. The question thus arises as to what the longer-term impacts of these trends mean for the detection and remediation of severe forms of labour exploitation. In this article, we examine some of the advantages and limits of remote monitoring as they relate to forced and child labour.

First, we will examine how the use of social impact technology in place of in-person audits might affect timely victim protection. Current estimates predict that the first four hours after a social compliance audit are the most critical window for interventions ensuring that child labour victims access necessary assistance. Even for in-person audits, there is often a substantial delay between an auditor inspecting a factory, processing the results of the audit and carrying out emergency remediation. As a result, victims may not receive support or assistance for days or even months after they first come into contact with an auditor. Bad actors may use these time delays to pressure victims into not cooperating with law enforcement or remediation experts and may also remove evidence and/or pressure witnesses. Travel restrictions related to COVID-19 further hinder the ability of responders to physically reach victims and to carry out this already challenging work.

Assisting victims through remote auditing or the use of social impact technology also has its challenges, particularly as many tools allow workers to report issues anonymously—and it may not be readily apparent how to identify the victim.  Nevertheless, social impact technology has the potential to directly connect with workers and detect cases without the knowledge of suppliers, which can decrease the risk of retaliation against victims. As the detection is done “off-site”, it can also reduce the risk of destruction of evidence during the time lag between detection and assistance.

Additionally, there are stark contrasts to companies’ approaches to monitoring working conditions in their supply chain during the crisis. Some organizations, particularly those that relied solely on audits as a means of collecting information on working conditions, have chosen to drastically reduce or suspend monitoring, citing concerns about the validity and reliability of remote auditing. This has been exacerbated by the fact that many social compliance departments have been reduced as part of widespread cost-cutting measures within the private sector, impacting the ability of companies to undertake monitoring and due diligence effectively.

By contrast, other organizations are pivoting towards a more human-centric approach, responding to a growing media and consumer-driven focus on the individuals working in global supply chains. Companies characterized by this approach are responding to the increased risk by maintaining or investing in their compliance and sustainability teams and exploring new ways social impact technology can be used to overcome the barriers COVID-19 has spawned. Many are in fact conducting more regular and multi-faceted checks on their suppliers and workers across their supply chain to account for the additional health and safety issues posed by the pandemic.

The Role of Technology

COVID-19 therefore presents an opportunity for technology to push corporate monitoring to be more proactive, consistent and data-driven, which over time can help organizations be more effective at identifying risks such as forced and child labour. The use of social impact technology can also increase the consistency and comparability of data, which may in turn provide better and more accurate information on how labour conditions change overtime. It is important however to point out that not all remote auditing solutions are the same. Although inputs to the remote auditing process—such as certain worker voice technologies—are at advanced stages of development, there is still an urgent need for a more robust evidence base on what combination of remote auditing tools are the most effective and in which contexts.

Technologies that identify forced labour with increasing repeatability regardless of who the auditor is, such as Apprise Audit, also critically integrate gradients of severity into questions and responses. Identifying forced labour can be even more precise when a finding of physical or sexual abuse is assessed with more gravity than identifying improper placement of safety equipment. Apprise Audit is referred to as “worker voice” tool because it ensures that voices of traditionally marginalized workers—due to language and/or location—can be at the forefront of company and consumer concerns.

Two critical concerns with remote worker voice tools are their inability to verify that a respondent is in fact a worker, and to ensure that workers are free to respond to questions, without coercion by other parties. To address this, brands integrating tech solutions into social compliance auditing processes should consider hybrid models of in-person and tech-led remote audits. For example, a tiered system could involve using tech-led remote audits for first tier workers with access to mobile phones, and continuing in-person and tech-led hybrid audits, for situations where technology access is limited. These hybrid solutions could integrate a virtual factory walk-through using video conferencing via a factory owner’s phone, as well as remote interviews with workers to verify their working conditions.

Diginex Solutions has also partnered with the Mekong Club to see how distributed ledger technology can be used to remotely monitor working conditions in global supply chains. eMin enables the secure multi-party sharing and verification of digital documentation such as employment contracts, policies and wage payments and working hour records. Once documents are uploaded they cannot be altered without there being a permanent record of the change. This allows the cross-referencing of employment contracts maintained by the company with the original one signed by the workers to verify employment terms are consistent. It also helps companies to move beyond the “risk mapping” stage to show concrete action on ensuring ethical recruitment and employment practices in their operations and/or supply chain. This includes offering real-time audits of worker documentation, surveys with workers and investigation and remediation of rights’ violations.

The Future of Tech Tools in Social Compliance

Looking ahead, preserving the credibility of social compliance auditing will entail further acceptance of frontier tech tools (such as Apprise Audit and eMin) as the norm across sectors. These and other tools must interoperate with each other, because standalone products perpetuate ineffective policy solutions and do not reach scale. Supporting anonymized data-sharing would also provide brands, researchers and policymakers with a more holistic understanding of working conditions in global supply chains. Specifically, they can gain a more holistic understanding of how many actual cases of forced labour occur, the severity of those cases and if or how cases are remediated.

Companies are increasingly recognizing the value of standardization of compliance standards, data sharing and using their joint leverage to enact change at the factory-level. Nimble, information-sharing nonprofits that work across brands, factories, tech organizations and in collaboration with other NGOs, such as the Mekong Club in Hong Kong, will be essential to streamline uptake of credible technology that aim to monitor working conditions. Corporate leverage will also emerge as the strongest pathway to ensuring validity for any form of remote monitoring, and will ultimately be a tipping point for improving worker conditions globally.

Just as the growth of e-commerce hasn’t halted in-person shopping, we predict that remote monitoring will not lead to the elimination of pre-COVID-19 in-person auditing practices. Tech approaches are never silver bullet solutions to social problems. In fact, they amplify the positive or negative motivations of those using them. As was alluded to in the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s recent report on COVID-19 and the World of Work, a brand-new style of social compliance audits is likely to emerge as a result of this pandemic. Apps like Apprise Audit have the opportunity to lead the way in identifying forced labour because they are designed with the ILO’s 11 forced labour indicators in mind. Further, solutions such as eMin will increasingly ensure that a verified ledger system tracks employees’ vital documents, eliminating the potential pitfalls of human error.

This article has been prepared by Sophie Zinser, Hannah Thinyane, Phoebe Ewen and Leanne Melnyk as contributors to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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