The Importance of Worker Voice in Managing Migrant Labor Modern Slavery Risks

QIMA Sustainability Conference 2018 - Session 1: Critical human rights issues in global supply chains: modern slavery, human trafficking, gender inequality

Presented by:
Joyce Fong, Pentland Brands
Corporate Responsibility Manager ‑ Asia

Anders Lisborg, Issara Institute
Director, Business and Human Rights

Ohmar Ei Ei Chaw, Issara Institute
Country Director, Myanmar

Joyce Fong of Pentland Brands, together with Anders Lisborg and Ohmar Ei Ei Chaw of the NGO Issara Institute, emphasized the importance of making worker voice heard cross complex supply chains, and shared practical examples of fostering worker empowerment and ethical recruitment practices.

Highlights:

  • The role of worker voice in improving human rights in global supply chains
  • Practical channels for empowering workers via digital technologies and direct outreach
  • Investigating recruitment processes to root out unethical middlemen and protect workers from abuse

Making worker voice heard across complex supply chains

In the context of human rights, “worker voice” means more than simply getting accurate information from workers. It means capturing the voices, experiences, and needs of workers, and then channeling that voice into a clear mechanism for remediation.

Some integral elements in making the worker voice heard is to engage with workers in their own language, providing safe communication channels, as well as access to information and support networks.

Communicating with workers in their own language is important at all stages. During the due diligence process, this helps establish trust and the ability to communicate confidentially without a mediator. During the hiring process, migrant workers are particularly vulnerable if their communication with the factory management happens via an interpreter, as they may not have access to critical information. Plus, the workers may be subjected to interpreter fees as part of the “recruitment fees,” which are among the key factors proliferating labor abuses and forced labor caused by debt bondage.

Smartphone technologies are proving very powerful in empowering migrant workers. By connecting them to critical information and support systems, they help disrupt exploitative “job broker” systems, which rely on migrant workers have limited access to information and limited networks.

The Issara Institute leverages four main channels to directly engage with workers:

  • Direct outreach: in communities, in the workplace, in housing, at the border before departure, and via worker ambassador programs
  • Helpline and hotline: open 24/7 and free for callers, the hotline is staffed by personnel fluent in Myanmar, Khmer, Lao and Thai languages, and receives over 5,000 calls every year
  • Golden Dreams smartphone app: connects migrant workers to ratings of employers, labor providers and NGOs, as well as important alerts, notifications and guides
  • Social media and messaging platforms: offers closed chat rooms and direct messaging for safe, confidential and quick communication

Investigating the recruitment processes and the push for ethical recruitment

While recruitment fees are named among the top risks that may cause migrant workers to become trapped in modern slavery, true ethical recruitment goes beyond eliminating these fees or shifting them to the employer. It involves the full spectrum of compliance, including legal compliance, ethical conduct towards workers, transparent compensation systems, safe working environment, access to functional grievance mechanisms, and more.

To see the real recruitment process, brands’ due diligence should encompass not only factories and workers, but also the actual recruitment agencies, and be attentive to any red flags, such as lack of formal contracts, withholding of employee passports, recruitment fees, etc.

This is another sphere where worker voice becomes important – because the multiple channels of communicating with the workers help generate a vast amount of data about employers and recruiters. Transformed into business intelligence, this data can be used to inform workers and global brands alike of unethical labor practices and human rights risks.

Engage with workers via multiple channels, including direct outreach on the ground, helpline and hotline in local languages, Golden Dreams app (trip advisor for workers allowing to rate recruitment agencies)., closed chat rooms for workers. Generate information, transform it into business intelligence, use it to inform global brands of risks.

 
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