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Technology as Amplifier: Giving Workers a Voice in Social-Compliance Audits

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Modern slavery affects virtually every supply chain in the world from fishing to manufacturing, to hospitality and retail, write Phoebe Ewen of The Mekong Club and Hannah Thinyane and Sophie Zinser of the United Nations University Institute in Macau. The gap between the estimated number of victims and the number who were identified and helped suggests substantial failings in the current victim-identification processes. But innovative technology such as the social-compliance application Apprise Audit could make a big difference.

Technology as Amplifier: Giving Workers a Voice in Social-Compliance Audits

Workers in a Bangkok factory participate in a social audit: Technology could help address failings in victim-identification processes (Credit: Francisca Sassetti/United Nations University Institute in Macau)

Private-sector companies failing adequately to protect workers in their supply chains are under increased media scrutiny. That has created a new generation of consumers more aware of modern slavery and how companies integrate social responsibility across their corporate strategy. With many countries adopting relevant legislation, corporations are expected to take responsibility for identifying forced labor across their supply chains and swiftly eradicating issues as they arise.

But exploitative labor and human suffering often go undetected as worker voices remain unheard across vast international supply chains. Despite estimates of around 24.9 million victims of forced labor, only 0.3 percent of the total victims were identified and subsequently helped in 2018. A new report, “Use of New Technologies for Consistent & Proactive Screening of Vulnerable Populations”, published by United Nations University in Macau (UNU Macau) and The Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based anti-slavery nonprofit organization, examines how technology can address this gap.

Social compliance audits screen for labor exploitation within the supply chain. A vital aspect of any audit team’s job is to visit the supplier location – such as a factory – and assess labor conditions via worker interviews. Understanding if a company’s suppliers are adhering to expectations and codes of labor rights and worker treatment are the essential goals of these audits. However, research conducted by the UNU Macau-Mekong Club team exposes weaknesses in the traditional method of interviewing workers upon which many humanitarian groups and development organizations rely so heavily. As a result of these gaps, many workers may be suffering undetected as modern slavery persists.

In many cases, auditors visiting a factory will be under pressure to assess many different compliance issues during one visit. Lacking sufficient time to properly uncover labor conditions, auditors may cut a worker interview short and prioritize quicker tasks. In some cases, auditors may lack the skills and experience necessary to conduct a comprehensive interview that addresses the complexity of most modern slavery situations. The International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency,  recommends 11 separate indicators of forced labor be considered when assessing the risk of slavery. Research by UNU Macau and The Mekong Club suggests that most social-audit interviewers could address more adequately these complex indicators. Forms of exploitation adapt over time in response to legal loopholes, changing laws and inspection practices. When an auditor is not aware of new exploitation patterns, they might miss the cases right in front of them.

Because factories often hire large migrant-worker populations, auditors may lack language skills – or on-site translation facilities – during worker interviews. They may also be faced with cultural barriers that hinder workers from speaking freely about personal matters (such as sexual harassment) with others.

In 2019, The Mekong Club and UNU Macau collected survey responses from more than 200 auditors from 27 multinational brands. More than half of respondents indicated that they faced language barriers during the interview process. In most cases, social audit interviews are conducted in a group setting to save time. In fact, only 12 percent of auditors we surveyed said that they interview workers one-on-one exclusively. Workers lack privacy and can experience peer pressure when speaking in a group of colleagues – especially with line managers present. This hinders workers’ ability to speak freely, especially about conditions of exploitation.

Furthermore, a lack of consistency across the data collection process even within one company’s vast network of supply chains can make comparing results and consistent reporting on labor exploitation challenging. Our research reveals how some auditors work from paper-based guidelines only, while other auditors rely on their own experiences to steer the conversation and type of questions asked.

A number of “worker-voice” initiatives have been built and successfully implemented across supply chains. But corporations are frequently eager to integrate worker-voice tools into their social auditing regimes as if the technology could serve as a one-stop solution to structural flaws in their labor practices.

Sometimes, the shortcomings of these solutions lie in their design. In many cases, tools require the workers themselves to download and store the application on their own personal device and subsequently take the initiative to use the platform to self-report issues. This poses challenges in locations where smartphone technology access is low or where data use is expensive.

Most flaws in worker-voice tools lie in the systemic issues beyond their purview. These include a dissonance between auditing standards and working conditions confronted on the ground and a lack of consistency in business responses to labor-rights violations once identified. While worker-voice technology shows a promising commitment to ameliorating worker conditions from tech developers, suppliers, and auditors alike, it requires refinement before it can be implemented to promote large-scale change. 

The Apprise Audit application

Apprise Audit is an innovative mobile solution developed by UNU Macau and Mekong Club as a worker-voice tool with all stakeholders in mind – from auditors to corporations to the workers themselves. Apprise Audit can be downloaded onto the phone of the social compliance auditor and presented to the workers during an audit. The app offers an audio questionnaire, which workers can respond to while wearing a headset to protect their privacy. Workers select their language from a menu, and a series of questions are delivered to the worker via their headset, for which they can respond on a simple interface designed for illiterate workers.

The questions asked via the app reflect the ILO indicators of forced labor and were carefully developed after months of consultation and field testing with key stakeholders. Responses can be aggregated and viewed on a dedicated content-management system. Only authorized users have access to the interview results and can track any “red flags” picked up during the interview sessions. Workers can choose to remain anonymous during the process or select to leave contact details for auditors to follow up.

Apprise Audit has been used in numerous countries across Asia and has already uncovered instances of labor exploitation. In one case, female workers were asked whether they had undergone pregnancy testing before being allowed to start work at the factory. Prior to using Apprise, forced pregnancy testing had not been identified in this location. From using the app, the company uncovered the use of pregnancy tests and worked with their supplier to eliminate this practice.

Apprised of the situation: The social-audit app offers an audio questionnaire, which workers can respond to while wearing a headset to protect privacy (Credit: Apprise)

In another location, Apprise Audit flagged several instances of sexual harassment. Through gathering this data, auditors immediately flagged this issue and implemented a training program to ensure that both the workforce and factory management received clear instruction on rules and expectations for the fair treatment and safety of workers.

The most important overall benefit that workers, auditors, factory managers, and brands have identified in using Apprise Audit has been overcoming language and literacy barriers plaguing traditional audit processes. One worker in Thailand was interviewed after never having never been selected despite having been employed in factories for over 20 years. Using the Apprise Audit app, she was given space to voice concerns on the conditions of her work for the first time in her career. Other workers spoke about feelings of security and openness when responding privately via an app, a major difference from having spoken interview.

Emerging trends and future considerations 

Apprise Audit has already allowed companies to engage in data-driven responses to forced labor indicators that they had been unaware of prior to using the app. But any technology-centric approach – even one built on dismantling flaws identified in other worker-voice tools – must make a conscious effort to engage continually all stakeholders in the design and refinement process. It must also be embedded in company-wide support structures that help auditors to understand what actions to take based on their findings.  Any drift away from the mission of supporting the human beings that this technology was designed to help risks compromising the value of this tool.

New challenges arise as social and political factors exacerbating modern slavery emerge. The most obvious recent example is the Covid-19 pandemic, which has crippled supply chains and seen widespread restrictions on global movement. Some suppliers have borne unprecedented costs due to cancelled orders and loss of business, while others have seen spikes in demand that have pushed production beyond capacity and strained their workforce.

The social audit process has also taken a hit as auditors are unable to reach factories to interview workers and conduct inspections. In many cases, gathering data on worker conditions has become nearly impossible. This concern is especially salient, considering the heightened risk of slavery and labor abuse that is emerging as a result of the pandemic conditions. To alleviate some of these challenges, Apprise Audit has added functionality that allows auditors to administer interviews to workers remotely via a QR code. Members of The Mekong Club’s network of businesses are conducting trials of this approach.

As the social auditing landscape continues to evolve, we expect technologies such as Apprise Audit to become commonplace, with their use considered best practice. Our experience designing and implementing this project has led us to develop recommendations for key stakeholders across global supply chains. In our report, we propose that consideration be given to how technology addresses data gaps in human trafficking and labor exploitation among migrant populations. 

At the same time, we warn of the potential for misuse of technology, particularly for the unethical harvesting and use of data regarding vulnerable people such as migrant workers. Companies should ensure that corporate social auditing holistically integrates inclusive and safe worker interviews. In particular, including migrant workers’ feedback and favoring individual over group interviews must become the norm.

We also suggest that auditors be trained extensively on forced-labor issues and that clear escalation procedures be put in place to address uncovered incidents. Emphasis must be placed on applying technology in a thoughtful and human-centric way. When design is centered on workers’ needs, we believe that high-impact solutions can be discovered and our collective response to slavery will become much more effective.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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