Technology and the fight against modern-day slavery

Technology is helping to fight modern slavery in Southeast Asia

Archaic as it sounds, slavery still exists today, albeit not in the same form of yore, with forced labour and exploitation making the bulk of modern-day slavery.

Speaking to The Drum, Duncan Jepson, founder of Liberty Asia, bemoans the fact that despite slavery’s prevalence as conflicting or little information is known about it.

“It is a highly prevalent issues on a global level, however people either quote the UN International Labour Organisation’s numbers of 21 million people in modern slavery or the Global Slavery Index, which has the number higher at 45.8 million,” said Jepson.

“This is complicated by the fact that there is no standard definition for slavery, with definitions ranging across countries,” he added.

Liberty Asia is a non-government organisation (NGO) that aims to prevent human trafficking via legal advocacy, technological interventions and collaborations with NGOs, corporations and financial institutions in Southeast Asia.

Modern day slavery is often linked to the sex trafficking trade, which Jepson points out is only a small subset of the bigger problem.

“Most people in the community are focused on the sex trafficking aspect, but information shows that about 75% of modern slavery are people in forced labour. There is more focus and resource allocation on the smaller problem,” said Jepson.

While technology has been a boon in weeding out crime, that has not made much progress in solving the problem of modern day slavery, Jepson lamented .

“There is a conversation about whether technology solving the problem, but we are a long way from achieving that,” said Jepson.

“Technology offers a lot but not necessarily in the area of people who work in trafficking immediately believe,” he added.

Making a difference

The problem with utilising tech in fighting slavery is not as clear-cut, as NGOs struggle with too much work and not enough resources. Focusing efforts on adopting and learning new tech seems daunting according to Jepson.

“NGOs were hesitant about the cloud and database in general, and because most have a high turnover and just aren’t paid enough, the extra work in training in using technology has to be overcome,” he said.

With the mindset that Liberty Asia set out to help these NGOs with an enterprise-grade case management system, it is easy to use as well as continually supported by a large enough company.

“NGOs have a whole range of different tools, and often because large donors come along and give them money to improve their tools, it can default to them getting a bespoke system built for free,” said Jepson.

“What they needed is technology that is flexible, supported by a company large enough that will continue to support and develop technology for commercial reasons, NGOs can’t keep calling in a consultant to fix their bespoke systems,” he added.

Getting the buy-in from NGOs was a challenge, as getting them to agree on their commonality work was tough as each had their own fields.

“We wanted our system built on Salesforce to be used by NGOs for victim case management across all fields, so we had to communicate it so it was acceptable that there’s a commonality of work that they were doing,” said Jepson.

Creating a system to help NGOs with their recording keeping and admin has helped create one of the largest pools of data for modern-day slavery in Southeast Asia. Liberty Asia now has over 5,000 profiles of traffickers and smugglers gleaned from information provided by victims and social workers. The victim case management system is now in its third year, with NGOs contributing their data to better fight against modern slavery.

These profiles and information are now fed back to over 7200 of the world's 20,000 banking groups, to break the supply and banking services these traffickers might use via the anti-money laundering (AML) framework, according to Jepson.

“With these profiles we can create a typology report that is key for AML and communicates the types of mechanism and approaches used by the people involved.

“Banks must do due diligence on new clients and this provides another source of information for them to do that, along with third party checks better, cutting their exposure to these sort of activities,” he added.

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