Inspiring Innovation in Human Rights and Responsible Sourcing: Issara Institute Global Forum
We sat in collective silence in a Bangkok conference room, listening intently to the Thai, Burmese, and English translations coming through our earpieces. Three Burmese workers spoke quietly but emotionally of experiences working without pay for months or years, of wages earned but never received. “Please do not exploit” they said. “A human being is not a commodity.”
This was a powerful kick-off to the Issara Institute Global Forum: Innovation in Human Rights and Responsible Sourcingheld in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2017. The Issara Institute is a public-private sector platform and alliance that tackles human trafficking and forced labor in Southeast Asia through strategic business partnerships, data labs, and Inclusive Labor Monitoring. Issara emphasizes the need to build trust with both workers and companies in order to create an environment in which sensitive information can be shared and challenges can be addressed.
Issara’s three-day multi-stakeholder event convened over 120 leaders and innovators in the field of responsible sourcing to share current practices and models to address labor exploitation and human trafficking in global supply chains.
The Forum provided the opportunity to hear from representatives of international corporations such as Marks and Spencer, Walmart, Mars Petcare, Tesco, and Pentland Brands, amongst others. These companies spoke about their efforts to address human rights and labor risks within company supply chains. Many pointed to the trends driving progress, including the growth in governmental legislation to prevent forced and trafficked labor, the increase in worker-centered innovation, and emerging technology to collect information directly from workers.
The need for collaboration was highlighted by governmental representatives, recruitment agencies, and companies. U Myo Aung, Permanent Secretary of Myanmar’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration, and Population called for tripartite coordination to prevent the abuse of migrant workers by overseas employment agencies and employers. Companies expressed their willingness to engage with inter-governmental processes and stressed the need to work together to ‘fast-track’ the solutions of early adopters and set common standards.
For many migrant workers, human rights violations can begin during the recruitment process, leading to the confiscation of personal documents, coercion, and conditions of indebtedness. Given these conditions, presenters shared emerging tools to help companies improve their recruitment practices. These include Issara Institute’s Ethical Recruitment Pilot Toolkit, which helps employers and agencies work together to identify strengths and weakness of recruitment channels, and improvements needed to get both on an ethical track. In another example, the International Organization of Migration shared its new tool International Recruitment Integrity System (IRIS), a multi-stakeholder certification system for labor recruiters to support ethical recruitment of migrant workers. Currently in the pilot phase, IRIS helps businesses make informed decisions about the recruitment agencies they use to source workers, and serves as a due diligence tool to assess labor recruiters.
The Global Forum also showcased alternative data collection processes to increase awareness of worker conditions on the ground. In an innovative session, participants had the opportunity to test out a variety of technology platforms such as Issara Institute’s Golden Dreams, Ulula, Laborlink, and Contratados. While each serve a unique function, these technologies allow workers to anonymously report their working conditions, learn valuable information on workers’ rights, and access safe and legal recruitment agencies or employers. These tools not only help workers but also benefit businesses by revealing supply chain areas in need of improvements.
The Issara Institute Global Forum generated rich dialogue between industry leaders, governmental representatives, international agencies, recruitment agencies, and NGOs about how to advance ethical recruitment and address human and labor rights abuses in company supply chains. While this provided great value, the Forum’s unique contribution was its worker-centered perspective. By adding the voice of workers to these conversations, it humanized a topic that can sometimes feel removed from our daily lives. Hearing from workers themselves generated a sense of urgency, greater accountability, and increased the moral imperative to advance the work of all stakeholders in the room.
As the conference came to a close, I thought back to the personal stories shared by the three Burmese workers, of the wages earned but not yet received. While the forces that produce such injustices are complex, this event renewed my determination to engage in the important work of ensuring that workers in our global supply chains are empowered and treated fairly.