An estimated 40.3 million people in the world are being forced to work against their will, trapped in modern slavery.

But instead of locks and chains holding these people captive, today they are being held by debts that are impossible to pay off, threats of violence and withholding of documents such as passports, visas and employment contracts. They are paid little or nothing for their work, and in many cases become trapped in a cycle of exploitation for their entire lives.

Modern slavery refers to workers in factories across the world, who leave home to seek employment to provide for their families. These workers are tricked by illicit employment brokers, often made to incur large personal debts just to secure a job, and soon find themselves in total control of their employer. They are often beaten if they don’t comply with impossible demands, being paid pennies to make the clothes and expensive gadgets that we buy.

Modern slavery can be the systematic sexual exploitation of vulnerable people who are forced into the commercial sex trade. We live in a world where it is possible to rent someone else’s body for a few dollars, and many of these people are forced to sell their bodies through a system of debt and violence.

Vulnerable migrant workers can also become modern slaves, being forced onto fishing boats, working all day with no rest, and getting thrown overboard if they get sick.

Many victims are young children. We hear stories of entire families forced to work in mines to provide minerals and metals that make up components in our laptops and smartphones, children losing their sight or dying young from exposure to harsh chemicals.

Modern slavery can be people trapped working in supply chains across the world, from cotton fields, to iron mines, nail salons and massage parlors.

Today, the combined efforts of NGOs, activists, governments, law enforcement, public and private sector identifies and helps just 0.2 percent of the 40.3 million people that can be categorized as modern slaves.

In a world where sending a man to the moon is old news, we still find abused and exploited people in factories working to produce our t-shirts and trainers.

Supply chain issues

The world is waking up to this problem, however. The Mekong Club works closely with some of the largest retailers and manufacturers in the world, looking to identify and develop new and innovative ways to find and stamp out modern slavery in their operations. Many companies have thousands of suppliers, which makes this difficult, but this is something that blockchain may be able to help with.

For example, if we focus on factory workers we see a number of trends that contribute to people ending up in these situations. We see people dealing with multiple employment agencies in multiple countries, often paying very high recruitment fees to different parties along the way. Often, they cross borders. In many cases, key personal documents are taken from them by their employer as a means to exert control. In addition, factories will often use subcontractors to hire workers, so it is not always easy to identify where the workforce has come from and how they have been hired.

Buyers and factory owners will try to control some of this risk by conducting spot-checks and audits, but they are heavily reliant on trust to ensure that the paper copies of documents that they are checking such as employment contracts and documents are legitimate.

This lack of trust, transparency and security is what we are aiming to combat through the use of blockchain technology.

Finding a technology partner

At the Mekong Club, we have teamed up with Diginex, a blockchain financial services and technology company. Together we have built ‘eMin’, an app that targets one of the most common issues in supply chains: abuse via employment contracts.

The eMin app allows for copies of workers’ employment contracts and related documentation to be stored in an immutable and secure way using blockchain technology.

The simple user interface fits into existing recruitment practices, allowing a scan or photograph of the contract to be saved after it is approved by both the worker and employer. The documents are then uploaded onto the blockchain through the eMin app, with selected levels of access given to key stakeholders, such as auditors for spot-checks.

This simple app combats worker exploitation in a number of ways.

First, the worker now has access to their employment contract at any time, and it cannot be altered or confiscated, and they can always call upon this record if needed during labor disputes. This copy can be shared between employment agencies, with any updates or changes permanently recorded.

Selected data points such as worker pay, or actual contract copies can be shared with auditors and organizations such as UN agencies. Aggregated worker data can also be presented to show the demographics of a factory, or even the details of multiple layers of a supply chain.

This technology is being used by companies and employment agencies that want to demonstrate that they are giving workers a greater level of trust, transparency, and security. We appreciate that blockchain will not eliminate the fact that bad actors exist, but we strive to make it significantly harder for them to profit from the exploitation of others.

Earlier this year, we took eMin to Thailand to implement the solution with workers on shrimp farms, to help farm managers prove that all workers have legitimate and fair employment terms and have access to their employment contracts, in order to attract buyers and demonstrate to the world that such transparency can be achieved.

This is just one use-case for blockchain technology being implemented to bring trust, transparency, and security to the world of worker recruitment. By targeting employment contract abuse we are starting with a relatively simple yet common problem. As the world continues to embrace blockchain technology and continues to become enlightened to the scale and magnitude of these abuses, we are excited to see the world’s supply chains change and evolve.

Authored by Matt Friedman, CEO of the Mekong Club and Phoebe Ewen, Project Manager at the Mekong Club

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Matt Friedman
Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert with more than 30 years of experience as an activist, program designer, evaluator, and manager. He is currently the Chief Executive Officer for The Mekong Club, an organization of Hong Kong-based private sector business people who have joined forces to fight human trafficking in Asia, which he also co-founded.
Phoebe Ewen
Phoebe Ewen is a project manager at The Mekong Club, engaging with the association of businesses, coordinating and managing projects, writing, and conducting research. Phoebe has a background working in financial services, specializing in financial crime compliance and anti-money laundering, with a strong belief in the role of the financial service sector in the global fight against modern slavery.