Slavery and labour abuses will escalate in Southeast Asia as automation takes hold and the adoption of robot workers creates a race to the bottom. That’s according to a new report from global risk consultancy, Verisk Maplecroft.
Of five issues raised in the company’s 2018 Human Rights Outlook report, automation is identified as presenting the most “significant challenges to the reputations, operations, and supply chains of multinational companies, now and in the future.”
56 percent of Asian manufacturing jobs at risk
According to the UN’s International Labour Organisation, 56 percent of workers in the manufacturing hubs of Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam – collectively known as the ASEAN-5 – will lose their jobs to the rise of automation.
Those workers are particularly at risk, says Verisk Maplecroft, because of their countries’ economic dependence on low-skilled labour, while automation will exacerbate existing levels of labour rights abuses.
Verisk Maplecroft already rates each of the above nations as ‘high risk’ in its Modern Slavery Index. Those rankings are expected to deteriorate still further in the decades to come as automation replaces millions of low-skilled jobs.
The report concludes that, “Such workers will find themselves jobless and competing for a diminishing supply of decent work, unless their countries start now to re-skill and prepare workers to adapt to their gradual replacement by more efficient machines.
“The dark side of automation could therefore mean fewer alternatives to exploitative work and a spiral into modern slavery that renders sustainable development goal targets irrelevant,” it continues.
Verisk Maplecroft’s head of Human Rights, Dr Alexandra Channer, paints a bleak picture for future generations in the ASEAN-5 nations, unless urgent steps are taken to improve training and curb illegal labour practices.
“Displaced workers without the skills to adapt or the cushion of social security will have to compete for a diminishing supply of low-paid, low-skilled work in what will likely be an increasingly exploitative environment,” she said.
“Without concrete measures from governments to adapt and educate future generations to function alongside machines, it could be a race to the bottom for many workers.”
Women disproportionately affected
Numerous industries will feel the force of automation in the coming years. But Verisk Maplecroft highlights the garment, textile, and footwear sectors as being at serious risk – industries that currently employ 59 percent of all manufacturing workers in Cambodia and 39 percent in Vietnam, for example.
In those nations, the vast majority of manufacturing workers are women.
Verisk Maplecroft predicts that more than 2.5 million women in Vietnam and 600,000 in Cambodia will lose their jobs to automation. The result will be a huge number of women exposed to further labour violations, higher poverty rates, and even slavery.
“With fewer women in work – or more women forced into slavery – these countries will struggle to achieve gender equality goals,” says the report.
“The adoption of automation technologies by companies will be gradual, but the unintended consequences for millions of workers in brand supply chains are likely to be severe,” said Channer.
“Responsible sourcing departments, in particular, need to identify and understand the adverse effects of automation on human rights, and work with civil society and governments to mitigate the impacts within their own supply chains.”
Internet of Business says
Without wishing to add to the number of apocalyptic stories about the impact of robotics and automation on jobs, this report raises serious issues that – unlike some tabloid coverage of the issue – stand up to scrutiny.
Some of the sweat-shop industries called out in the report are already notorious for labour abuses, long hours, low wages, dangerous conditions, and poor human rights among some providers, while multinational brands seek to slash their costs to the bone.
In some countries, human labour is still cheaper than robots, and it stands to reason that as automation spreads throughout Asia – spearheaded by China, which is automating faster than any other nation, South Korea (the world’s most automated nation), and Japan – the effects on low-skilled human labour could be catastrophic.
For those that can’t re-skill or up-skill to take advantage of growing economies and new opportunities working alongside machines, the knock-on effect could either be unemployment, or wages and rights that are suppressed even further – slavery in some cases.
As the report says, intelligent, responsible sourcing must take these factors into account sooner rather than later, while governments in the region need to create programmes of life-long learning, retraining, and financial support.
But these factors apply to all economies to some extent, even the wealthiest ones. The future ‘battleground’ between humans and machines will not be unemployment in simple terms, but skills and human rights.
However, those nations where humans already lack sufficient protections, rights, and remuneration will undoubtedly be the worst hit, so it will be up to Western buyers to manage their supply chains responsibly and fairly.