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Tech startup gives workers the tools to report supply chain slavery

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 February 2018 13:06 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A worker sprays colour on a drawer inside a household furniture manufacturing industry in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad November 28, 2014. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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"We want to motivate a race to the top"

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Giving staff the tools to report workplace abuses, including forced labour, should improve data for brands that are striving to ensure their products are slavery-free, a tech startup said.

From texts and calls to messaging apps and social media, technology could encourage workers to share issues anonymously.

That would give companies a better understanding of the risk of slavery in their global supply chains, said Antoine Heuty, chief executive of Ulula, a software and analytics platform.

"Our platform can help build trust and enable workers to connect with companies in real-time, anywhere, any time and in any language," Heuty told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With modern slavery increasingly making global headlines, companies are under growing pressure from governments and consumers to disclose what actions they are taking to ensure their operations and products are not tainted by forced labour.

"By combining workers' responses with other data, we can help companies in the fight against slavery, by understanding their employees," said Heuty, whose social enterprise is one of a rising number of businesses seeking to tackle societal issues.

While major companies from sportswear giant Adidas to budget fashion chain Primark have set up whistleblower hotlines for workers in recent years, Ulula aims to go further, Heuty said.

The platform will merge feedback from workers with other data, such as satellite imagery of palm oil plantations and building regulations for garment factories, to give companies real-time insight into risks in their supply chains, he said.

Ulula also hopes its software could in the future be used to build industry benchmarks, allowing companies and suppliers to compare working conditions and regulations against their peers.

"We want to motivate a race to the top," Heuty said.

While technology can play an important role in protecting vulnerable workers and preventing abuses, it should not be seen as a "silver bullet", said the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

"Some software platforms may well improve traceability and transparency, and be a useful mechanism to flag risk," said Cindy Berman, head of modern slavery strategy at ETI, a group of trade unions, firms and charities promoting workers' rights.

"But resolving workplace grievances or rights violations cannot lie with technology."

About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labour in 2016, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and rights group Walk Free Foundation.

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Robert Carmichael; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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