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Issara Institute’s Strategic Partners Program

Empowering worker voice and going beyond audits to strengthen supply chains

Issara Institute’s Strategic Partners Program graphic



The challenge

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.

The response

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.

Key aspects of the initiative

Issara’s unique Inclusive Labor Monitoring method involves the following components and corresponding data to date: 

  1. Continuous and widespread monitoring of partner supply chains via Issara’s toll-free, multilingual, 24-hour migrant worker hotline and various social media platforms; staff visits to migrant communities; workplace assessments that involve site surveys, document reviews, and interviews with workers and management; and port risk assessments.

    According to Issara:
  • More than 100,000 workers are covered by the Inclusive Labor Monitoring program.

  • The program assesses and engages over 500 Thai supplier company workplaces, including companies across all tiers of partners’ supply chains and covering upstream farms, plants and fishing vessels.

  • Community outreach – carried out by Issara’s grassroots civil society organization partners and by ambassadors who are returned migrants aiming to help jobseekers migrate more successfully – has reached more than 25,000 workers directly in source areas.

  • Between 1,000 and 1,500 calls and conversations per month take place with workers via Issara’s various worker voice channels, including the multilingual hotline, Facebook, the Issara Golden Dreams Android app (detailed below), and other social media and chat/messaging platforms.

 

“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.”

Mark Taylor, Issara Institute

 

  1. Data analytics and development of empowering worker-centric technology to uncover risks and impacts in complex supply chains, many of which are not captured by traditional social audits.

    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:

  • More than 900 workers were involved in the creation of the program’s mobile app (called Golden Dreams), which provides information on worker rights, policies and laws related to migrant workers; updated lists and reviews of employers, recruitment agencies and service providers such as hospitals and NGOs; polling platforms to allow migrant workers to voice their opinions and view those of others; and a secure mechanism to report a problem or seek immediate assistance from the Issara team.

  • Over 90,000 migrant workers and jobseekers are regularly interfacing with and exchanging through Issara worker voice channels.
     

“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.”

Mark Taylor, Issara Institute

 

  1. Development and implementation – in direct collaboration with suppliers – of improvement plans that make changes in labor recruitment and management systems and that are based on direct engagement with workers.

    According to Issara:
  • Corrective actions and collaborations undertaken by suppliers, in partnership with Issara technical teams, have positively impacted over 25,000 workers.

  • Corrective actions and collaborations have included corrections in illegally low wages; excessive deductions; inappropriate treatment by line supervisors or human resources staff; document withholding; lack of contracts; unsafe dormitories; sexual harassment; and weak, unsafe or non-functional grievance mechanisms. 
  1. Remediation for victims via a Victim Support Fund and the organization’s Freedom of Choice program, which is the first remediation program in the world to provide unconditional cash transfers to victims of trafficking, often coupled with safe job placement through Issara partner businesses, empowering survivors to stabilize and make their own decisions in overcoming forced labor.

    According to Issara:
  • Over 6,000 workers identified as being in forced labor situations received forms of remedy through healthcare, legal assistance, safe relocation, employment, psychosocial care and assistance obtaining documentation.
  • The Victim Support Fund supported more than 500 victims of trafficking, including their children who were also in the trafficking/harm environment.
  • Over 200 victims received unconditional cash transfers through the Freedom of Choice program.
  1. Production of bi-annual risk reports for the companies involved, providing each partner with an overview of issues identified in its supply chain and actions that have been taken in response.

  2. Multi-stakeholder working groups and the production of cutting-edge research and analysis that provide platforms for discussion on key topics in ethical sourcing, such as ethical recruitment systems, mainstreaming worker voices into global responsible sourcing systems, technology solutions to human trafficking, the intersections of seafood sustainability and labor, and jobseeker and migrant worker empowerment.
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