Empowering worker voice and going beyond audits to strengthen supply chains
On fishing vessels, at ports, on farms, and at other job sites across Southeast Asia, forced labor continues to be an everyday reality. Victims of trafficking are brought across national borders under false pretenses of safe and decent work, only to be unjustly treated and exploited by recruiters and employers who trap these individuals into forced labor using physical violence or debt bondage.
Yet, time and time again, audits of suppliers by global buyers and brands have failed to accurately identify and meaningfully address these types of human rights violations; and workers themselves have been unable to access information and holistic support to rise out of these inhumane and unacceptable conditions.
Established in 2014, the Issara Institute is tackling human trafficking and forced labor in Southeast Asia through a two-pronged approach of bottom-up worker empowerment and top-down improvement of the management systems that administer global supply chains.
Since January 2016, after a two-year pilot program that engaged 10 private sector partners and focused on the seafood industry, Issara has been working with an increasing number of global brands and retailers to “eliminate trafficking risks in their supply chains” and transform private sector approaches in tackling this pervasive issue.
The Issara model – called the Strategic Partners Program and using the organization’s Inclusive Labor Monitoring method – currently involves 17 global brands, retailers and importers from the United States and Europe, including Marks & Spencer, Mars Petcare, Nestlé, Tesco and Walmart. Several of Issara’s strategic partners are also involved in other forced labor initiatives, such as the Responsible Labor Initiative, the Seafood Task Force, and the Leadership Group on Responsible Recruitment.
The program’s scope has now expanded beyond seafood to include apparel, footwear, fruits, vegetables, spices, sauces and poultry export supply chains across Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
Issara’s unique Inclusive Labor Monitoring method involves the following components and corresponding data to date:
“If you want to drive sustainable change for victims of forced labor, you have to go beyond a raid-and-rescue approach or strengthening rule of law, which is an extremely slow process that leaves workers stuck in shelters in the meantime and often receiving little to no pay or remediation in the end. You need a collaborative approach, one that genuinely works with suppliers in partnership with global brands.
The Issara model works at the ground level to understand the situation at the factory level so that we can be well-equipped to provide a safe channel for worker voices to be heard, both before improvement plans are in place and while they are carried out. We then have a responsibility to support remediation when issues arise, all the while safeguarding the information that’s being shared.”
This aspect of the program’s work allows partners to “better understand trends and patterns in migration, gain insight into hot spots for trafficking, understand supply chain risks, and develop strategic solutions to addressing forced labour in supply chains.”
From running the hotline for many years, Issara recognizes that the knowledge held by migrant workers themselves often vastly exceeds, in quality and quantity, a lot of what NGOs and workers’ rights groups are tapped into. As such, Issara is motivated to create platforms for migrant workers and jobseekers to exchange up-to-date, accurate information relevant to safe job seeking and migration. Thus, the primary goal of Issara’s worker voice platforms is worker empowerment and strengthening linkages to remediation. At the same time, the value of this safely sourced worker feedback for corporate due diligence and worker-driven corporate responsibility is clear.
According to Issara:
“One thing we often hear from the companies we work with is how daunting it can be to know what’s happening across complex supply chains. But the situation is changing rapidly in our modern world. The majority of workers in Southeast Asia have access to smartphones and use these technologies in their daily lives.
If you can creatively tap into these advancements to talk to workers – ensuring privacy and the support of remedy along the way – then you can start to unlock information that traditional approaches such as audits haven’t captured. And having that information empowers companies and other actors along supply chains to respond in ways that are more systemic and that have real impacts in the lives of workers and their families.”