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Global Affairs

Ending Modern Day Slavery With Blockchain Tech

 7 min read / 

Before Wall Street became the world leading financial centre, it was a slave market.  In 1711, the New York City Common Council declared the Lower Manhattan city as the first official market for the sale and rental of African and Indian slaves.

The trade is said to have happened at the corner of Wall and Pearl Streets, which was part of the slave-based Dutch settlement founded as New Amsterdam in 1624.  It was not until 1762 that the slave auctions were stopped. Slavery was later abolished in 1865 through the 13th amendment passed by Congress. Fast forward to a few months ago, CNN aired a story about migrants being auctioned off into slavery in Libya. Following the story, a lot has been unearthed and the world is now waking up to the realities of modern-day slavery.

Human trafficking is not only a menace in Africa and the Middle East but also in other parts of the globe. A report by the Global Slavery Index estimates that 45.8m people are enslaved in some form of modern slavery in the world today. The report shows that 58% of those living in slavery are in mainly five countries – namely India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan.

Up until recently, there wasn’t really an all-encompassing solution to this complex atrocity, mainly because the majority of those affected by slavery lack the identity, credit, and access to justice that would bring their experience to the public. This is despite the explosive growth of digital communication channels in the recent years.

However, with blockchain technology, there may be an actionable solution. The distributed public ledger technology is making it possible to assign an identity to those prone to human trafficking and also track and prevent activities that increase the demand for slave labour. Here is a case study of an industry where slavery has become a norm and how the blockchain technology is being utilised to end it.

The Thai Seafood Industry

The Thai seafood industry has for long been in the limelight for exploiting immigrants through slave labour. According to the Global Slavery Index, over three hundred thousand slaves work in Thai vessels owned by enterprises which export fish and seafood mostly to the U.S. and Europe. The slaves working in these vessels are usually lured from poor Asian countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia with a promise of real paid work, only to be forced to work for long hours, under poor conditions and without pay.

According to the report, those who try to resist or are not able to work under these conditions are often beaten to death and thrown overboard. The European and the U.S. governments have been warning the Thai government about this but given the complexity of the issue, the atrocities have continued unabated.

But now with blockchain, a solution which involves assigning an identity to the labourers in this industry is being developed. 

How Blockchain Tech Can Help

The idea behind the blockchain-powered solution is to expose businesses’ supply chains to public scrutiny and therefore dissuade reliance on slave labour. There are a number of ways through which this technology can help solve slavery issues like the ones witnessed in the Thai seafood industry. Firstly, the technology can be integrated with wearable devices to capture and store real-time data such as the vulnerable labourers’ location, health state, working hours and any other information that would raise alarm in case of abuse. However, it is important to note that this approach is not without drawbacks, the key one being the incompatibility with ERP systems being utilised by the big corporations. Also, most small and medium businesses are likely not to have the skills or resources for implementation.

Blockchain can also help with worker identification by providing a unique data identifier to be linked to any person and therefore make them visible and traceable. Human traffickers usually confiscate passports, ID, and other identifying documents from immigrants, therefore making it impossible to trace them. 

Blockchain powered systems can eliminate the need for carrying physical identification by creating unique worker ID databases which can be monitored by businesses, NGOs and regulatory agencies.

The Smart contract technology would also ensure that the terms of every employment contract are observed to the letter and there is transparency in wages, work schedules, and job requirements. This means that evil-minded employers would find it hard to put labourers into debt bondage through job placement fees. Debt bondage is when employers pretend to lend their victims’ large sums of money as job placement fees and trick them into working for free in an effort to pay.

The Provenance Project

Provenance, a London based NGO, is utilising blockchain to trace seafood from the moment it is harvested to its arrival in supermarkets. The project seeks to have all fishing vessels in Thailand installed with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag to make it possible to trace the journey of each fish from the moment it is caught to the time it arrives on a dinner plate. This will make it possible for the respective governments and consumers to monitor the process and ensure that it is socially responsible.

The Provenance project seeks to make it mandatory for migrants to wear a device which can record their biometric data, including their contractual agreement with employers and real-time locations.

With this technology, consumers will have the knowledge needed for them to make purchasing choices where they can know if a product was manufactured humanely or inhumanely. The implications are tremendous. Employers will find it nearly impossible to exploit their human resources and it will also be easier for the authorities to track the immigrants’ whereabouts and follow-up on those who disappear.

The SlaveFree Trade Approach

Founded in 2016, SlaveFreeTrade boasts to be the first verification framework dedicated to eliminating slavery in business supply chains.  The project seeks to create a platform where businesses can account for their supply chains and consumers can trace and only purchase goods that are socially responsible. Just like Provenance, SlaveFreeTrade utilises blockchain to track the supply chain and put to light the type of raw materials and labour used in the process. Every time a product changes hands, the transaction is recorded on the blockchain, therefore creating a permanent history of the product from production to manufacturing to sale.

This approach not only guarantees slave-free labour but can also be helpful in ensuring that companies are environmentally conscious while still maintaining operational efficiency.

Accessible Information Through Blockchain

The best thing about the blockchain solutions is that anyone, including the consumer of the products, is able to trace to have access to them. In this case, everyone will have access to the supply chain and will have the ability to avoid products with integrity issues. Blockchain projects such as the Provenance and SmartFreeTrade can be very helpful in countries such as Libya where immigrants in transit continue to be hijacked and sold into slavery. However, the implementation may still be a challenge given the political instability in the region.

As blockchain technology continues to advance, there are high hopes that more advanced solutions to human trafficking and slavery will be found. With the worsening situation in Libya and Syria, we can only hope that this happens sooner rather than later.

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