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Darian McBain, Executive Advisor, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Thai Union Group PCL

With the World Locked Down, Technology Must Help Continue the Fight Against Modern SlaveryDarian McBain, Executive Advisor, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability at Thai Union Group PCL

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought supply chains into focus—from questions about how goods get from A to B to concerns about shortages and panic buying. Less attention, however, has been directed to the people at the top of these supply chains. The workers who harvest produce, fish the oceans, and make our products have been largely forgotten despite the growing risks in this area.

We face, in many ways, a perfect storm for modern slavery and labor abuse. The pandemic has increased uncertainty for workers at the top end of the value chain, many of whom are migrants and rely on continuous employment to stay in the country and support their families back home. The uncertainty faced by these workers has been reflected through a steep drop in remittances around the world. Through the course of 2020, remittance flows in East Asia and the Pacific are projected to fall 11%, with a further decline of 4% forecast for 2021. With remittances contributing $500bn to developing economies every year, the financial impact of this sharp decline could also push more people to search across borders for jobs at just the time when employment is scarce and avenues for legal migration limited.

The financial insecurity of existing migrant workers and the vulnerability of new economic migrants plays directly into the hands of those who profit through exploitation. International businesses must not enable this illicit activity. 

However, supply chain transparency—the key tool for fighting exploitation—has been compromised by the pandemic, as auditors and human rights observers face difficulty accessing farms, factories, and fishing vessels. 

Where human systems are hobbled, technology can step in. We have seen investment pour into blockchain solutions that ensure environmental standards and human rights are being upheld in supply chains for some of the world’s most commonly purchased products

Where human systems are hobbled, technology can step in. We have seen investment pour into blockchain solutions that ensure environmental standards and human rights are being upheld in supply chains for some of the world’s most commonly purchased products. Blockchain is an effective enabler of product traceability. Its decentralized ledger is an enabler for multiple supply chain stakeholders to input data. Meanwhile, the immutable record created through blockchain provides an effective way for retailers and consumers alike to verify the origins of a product.

With its complex web of stakeholders and vessels out at sea for potentially months on end, the possible applications for blockchain in the seafood industry are extensive. For example, Thai Union has previously partnered on projects with Each mile using Fishcoin, in which blockchain is used to reward fishers with crypto tokens whenever they submit information about their catch. Currently, the business is working with Thaiblockchain specialist Atatoto provide one European retailer with blockchain traceable tuna. Similarly, it is partnering with (en)visible, an expert in food systems transparency, to apply blockchain traceability to the shrimp Thai Union supplies to supermarket customers in the US.

These blockchain systems both provide reassurance to consumers, who are increasingly interested in how their food was sourced, and illuminate supply chains in which it was previously difficult to get visibility. 

It is only with full traceability that major businesses can use their influence over suppliers to ensure the right measures are put in place to protect against modern slavery and avoid environmentally destructive practices. It is important for seafood businesses to continue to invest in these traceability technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic. With quarantine restrictions making it harder to place human observers on fishing vessels, a combination of electronic observer systems and blockchain ledgers can provide a verifiable data trail for seafood sold around the world.

In addition to its broader role in expanding supply chain traceability, the versatility of blockchain technology can play a unique and vital role in protecting migrant workers from unethical recruitment and employment practices. Thai Union has been working closely with Thailand’s Kasikornbank (K Bank) on ways blockchain can be used to shield migrant workers from the confiscation of their legal documents. The withholding of passports or work permits is a common practice among exploitative recruiters and employers, who use these papers as leverage over workers. In its trial phase, the solution developed by K Bank and Thai Union allows migrant workers to store verified digital versions of their personal documents on blockchain. This means they can access them on any electronic device when requested by authorities and prove the documents are authentic.

While businesses manage the logistical challenges of COVID-19, it is vital they continue the fight against exploitation. Prior to the pandemic, businesses and governments had made great progress together in efforts to stamp out this injustice. With countries such as China, Myanmar, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia all showing their highest risk to modern slavery since 2017, it is vital we step up collective efforts. By investing now in new technologies that enable traceability and put power in the hands of migrant workers, we can prevent a spike in labor abuse and strengthen the foundations of a free and fair economy.

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