Can data help end forced labor?

A garment factory in Sri Lanka. Some experts think that better data — and new applications — can help untangle the webs of labor exploitation. Photo by: International Labor Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

Two years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 workers and injured 2,515 — the deadliest garment factory accident on record — donors and entrepreneurs are calling upon the power of data to prevent forced labor worldwide.

Labor trafficking is becoming harder to track as companies’ supply chains grow more complex, often involving thousands of subcontractors and delivering goods to retailers spread across the planet. But labor experts at the Global Philanthropy Forum in Washington, D.C., last week said new data innovations can help untangle the labyrinthine webs of labor exploitation that put workers — and their human rights — at risk.

“Slavery is in most supply chains, and we need data to address this,” Justin Dillon, CEO of Made in a Free World, told Devex on the sidelines of the conference.

“No company is everywhere all the time; if we have data we can show where the risk is,” he added.

Dillon launched a predictive analytics tool six months ago called Forced Labor Risk Determination and Mitigation, to help companies dig deeper into their supply chains and identify materials and suppliers that are most prone to labor abuse.

To utilize the tool, companies upload their purchase data, which FRDM compares against a database of purchasing information for, “everything you can buy in the marketplace,” Dillon explained. The tool then identifies the company’s high-risk materials or suppliers and builds an action plan to address them. It might include policy changes, strengthened vendor agreements, or audit recommendations.

Other data-driven efforts seek to identify the individuals behind labor exploitation. Dan Viederman, CEO of Verité, is using data to expose the third-party labor brokers and recruiters who hire and manage the migrant workers and who play a major role in determining labor conditions.

“The labor facilitation piece of this is a massive weakness,” Viederman told Devex.

When workers find themselves in debt to corrupt recruiters who charge excessive fees, they are more vulnerable to exploitation, such as excessive work hours, obligations to perform dangerous tasks or to engage in unwanted sexual acts.

“What we’re doing with data is illuminating networks of labor brokers that facilitate labor migration. There is no global database of these brokers and yet many are the direct cause of labor exploitation,” Viederman said.

Verité is creating an online network to map labor brokers based on information companies share. The incentive for companies to share their data, Viederman said, is that doing so gives them access to the database, which can show them if any of their brokers raises red flags. Four companies are currently involved in the program’s pilot phase, and it has already completed a pilot program with Apple.

“We’ve gone deep with Apple,” Viederman said, explaining that Verité investigated the presence of third party labor brokers in Apple’s supply chains, set strict accountability mechanisms for factories where they were present, and facilitated $21 million in reimbursement to workers in compensation for excessive recruitment fees. These fees can cost upwards of $3,500 for a Filipino worker to find employment in Taiwan or $6,000 for a Guatemalan to secure work in the United States, according to Viederman.

Some companies are using data to empower workers with the same tools that have so far advanced consumer advocacy efforts. San Francisco-based LaborVoices, Inc. is using data to empower workers by flipping the feedback model from customer- to worker-focused. Instead of asking customers what companies they’re most concerned about, LaborVoices has developed a “smartline” system where workers can report on working conditions with a mobile phone.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if workers had information at their fingertips to know where the best workplaces are?” LaborVoices CEO Kohl Gill asked.

“Could we have workers rating their employers and use the ratings to provide recommendations to other workers?” Gill added, likening the system to a TripAdvisor for workers.

The systems are set to be implemented in Bangladesh, starting with the apparel sector and with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development — and in Turkey with a focus on safe migration and access to safe jobs for Syrian refugees there.

USAID has also taken steps to use data to combat forced labor. The agency in March launched its Supply Unchained initiative and released a call for concept notes to harness new technologies that can identify, communicate, and create “feedback loops” with vulnerable workers in global supply chains.

USAID wants to help grass-roots groups directly in contact with victims collect more and better-quality data, and then connect that data up to bigger organizations that can use it to map and analyze risks, according to Bama Athreya, USAID senior specialist on labor and employment rights.

Data gaps are an enormous challenge, Athreya said at the philanthropy forum. While the U.S. Department of Labor compiles a list of goods manufactured around the world under forced labor conditions, this list is just “the tip of the iceberg” since data is not verifiable for many other products that should be listed, she added.

And while the International Labor Organization estimates there are 20 million forced laborers in the world, only 49,000 of them have been specifically identified, Athreya said. Effective data sharing between NGOs that identify trafficking hotspots and more effective use of data for victim identification remain key challenges, she added.

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About the author

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    Claire Luke

    Claire is a journalist passionate about all things development, with a particular interest in labor, having worked previously for the Indonesia-based International Labor Organization. She has experience reporting in Cambodia, Nicaragua and Burma, and is happy to be immersed in the action of D.C. Claire is a master's candidate in development economics at the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs and received her bachelor's degree in political philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross.

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