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  • UNU Institute in Macau

Tackling Gender-Based Labour Exploitation of Migrant Workers in the Garment Industry through Tech

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

In the age of intense human mobility, millions of migrants around the world are extremely vulnerable to human rights violations such as extortion, detention, forced labour, sexual exploitation and human trafficking. According to the United Nations’ World Migration Report 2020, women and girls are especially vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking, representing more than 50 per cent of all victims of exploitation in Europe, Asia and Africa, and over 80 per cent in the Americas.

In particular, Asia hosts the largest number of international migrants in the world, characterized for dynamic transnational migration events, where female migrant workers — who are fleeing poverty, conflict and persecution— end up trapped in exploitative and slavery-like working and living situations, including forced labour, forced marriage and other forms of sexual exploitation. However, it is estimated that less than one per cent of victims are identified and receive help.

A mobile solution for screening vulnerable populations Over the course of our work in migrant technology, we wondered what role technology could play to improve victim identification; in turn informing more responsive and effective policy to end violence against women and girls. We started looking at the garment industry in Asia, one of the most female-dominated industries in the world. Women and girls in the industry face great vulnerability, yet have little or inexistent support available to them.

In partnership with the Mekong Club, we developed Apprise Audit, a mobile solution to enhance the privacy, inclusivity, frequency and consistency of screening of workers in factories, allowing workers to report issues of exploitation more safely and privately. We tested the app with global corporations in their supply chains across 13 countries including Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand. One of the key findings of our impact assessment of the tool was that migrant workers (and female workers in particular) felt more comfortable using the app to report on working conditions than in in-person interviews. The app also allowed auditors to unmask gender-based labour abuse and exploitation, such as debt bondage, harassment and violence, and reproductive health discrimination.

A mobile app to combat gender-based violence Debt bondage As many female migrant workers rely on recruitment agencies to find employment abroad, debt bondage is a recurrent exploitative practice in global supply chains. A report by Business Fights Poverty, in partnership with Nestle and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, found that mobile solutions such as Apprise Audit can help detect these practices and map vulnerabilities across regions to help eradicate recruitment-fee debt bondage. Harassment and violence

The Apprise Audit app also allows social auditors to detect sensitive information that labour inspectors using traditional interview methods would be unable to access. In one factory, the app helped identify several cases of women who had witnessed or directly experienced harassment or violence. Armed with this information, the labour inspector asked the factory management team to run a refresher course on abuse and violence in the workplace for all workers and managers. Sexual and reproductive health discrimination

In another garment factory, the app allowed labour inspectors to uncover that female migrant workers had been forced to undergo pregnancy testing prior to commencing employment. The labour inspectors then conducted further investigation and found that this particular facility did not specify any health test requirements for the pre-employment health check-up. The factory management explained that any health tests would be at the discretion of the recruitment agencies. The labour inspector recommended the factory manager to specify the essential health tests for the check-ups so that no more women are subject to forced pregnancy tests.

These examples demonstrate how critical it is to implement technology in social compliance audits. Not only can technological innovations identify and help victims, but they can also provide data on these practices to inform responsive migration policy that can target prosecution, be used to protect vulnerable communities and prevent women and girls from falling into exploitative and abusive situations.

About the authors

Francisca Sassetti is a Research Assistant at United Nations University Institute in Macau working on the Migrant Tech project. Her research interests include ICT4D, human rights, and democracy and democratization.

Dr. Hannah Thinyane is a Principal Research Fellow at the United Nations University Institute in Macau. Her research focuses on ICT for development, and human-computer interaction, particularly looking at the use of technology to enhance the agency of victims of human trafficking. Her research interests are mobile computing, human-computer interaction and the use of ICTs for development.

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