A Chinese male slavery survivor poses for a photograph after completing an employment support programme run by charity The Sophie Hayes Foundation in Birmingham, Britain on July 25, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Sonia Elks

From tracing ill-gotten gains back to their source to spotting illegal factories, technology will be key in beating slavery as a fragmenting workplace leaves many more at risk, the United Nations leading expert on slavery said on Tuesday.

With an increase in automation and temporary contracts, billions go without rights like holiday pay or a minimum wage, but the technology which has enabled many of these changes can also be used to beat workplace abuses, said Urmila Bhoola.

“It (technology) definitely presents both a threat and an opportunity,” the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But the opportunities for using tech as a tool to identify people who are in modern slavery and to assist them are far greater and they outweigh the threat.”

Two billion people – more than 60% of the world’s workers – are in informal employment, where they are not covered by formal arrangements, such as a contract, or do not have protections like sick pay, International Labour Organization data shows.

Those in informal work are known to be at a higher risk of slavery, said Bhoola, as she prepares to present a report on current and emerging forms of slavery to the UN next week.

The number of informal workers is set to swell in coming years, as low-skilled workers are pushed out of more stable employment by automation and others move towards short-term jobs offered through digital platforms, she said.

“If we look at the informal economy and the anticipated increase in informal work and more precariousness and vulnerability, then we are very far from decent work and human rights in the workplace,” she said.

But even as technology enables some unscrupulous employers to abuse labour rights, it is also helping to identify slave-owners and offer help to those at risk, the South African lawyer said in a phone interview from Johannesburg.

She cited innovative tools ranging from a project using satellite images to look out for illegal factories to secure blockchain databases that trace fashion back to the source, and simple apps giving advice and contacts to vulnerable workers.

“Those tools can play a critical role,” she said.

“Protecting people is about providing access to information – where to go for help, where to go if you have a grievance.

“If you are enslaved in domestic work, for instance, and you get one opportunity to use someone’s phone, what are you able to do with that phone to get help?”

Technology is not a quick fix, said Bhoola, who raised concerns that the majority of anti-slavery technology is still being developed and deployed in the West, not in the developing world where the prevalence of abuse is highest.

She called for action to ensure that slavery victims were consulted about new tools, saying those who had experienced abuse were best placed to advise on what help others in the same situation might need.

Governments must also step in to prosecute abuses and ensure that businesses face the prospect of “remedy and reparation” if they are found to have committed or enabled abuses, she said.

However, with many police forces facing stretched budgets and slave-owners hiding from view, technology can help show them where to look, said Bhoola.

She cited a UN report suggesting that some $150 billion in profits is generated each year as a result of modern slavery.

“If you are actually able to find where that money is emanating from, where it’s going and how it is being used … then you really have a very strong basis for addressing what is essentially a hidden crime,” she said.

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