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Tech helps tackle trafficking and modern slavery, but industry needs a culture shift to eradicate it

Technology can help end the scourge of modern slavery, but the sector can do more and needs a change in thinking to take a lead

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery claim more than 40 million victims worldwide and generate an estimated $150bn, second only to drugs in annual illegal profits. It is an issue in every country, with 13,000 estimated victims in the UK, although many believe this is a serious underestimation.

With increasing global legislation and its own UN Sustainable Development Goal, modern slavery is a very real and increasingly high-profile issue. It has also become a much more high-profile concern within the public consciousness and recently featured in the BBC police drama, Line of Duty.

It is also an issue that the technology sector is not immune to – and we must face it head-on. Many actors within the industry are making an impact already, but there are challenges that we must address if we are to eradicate these practices.

TechUK has been active in attending international conferences in the UK and Europe, working with the UK government, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other international partners to make this a true global, sectoral effort.

Overall, technology has a huge role to play in tackling modern slavery, but we must recognise its limitations. Technology is a tool – a transformative tool – but a tool all the same. A recent TechUK conference concluded that tech tools can only work when there is a strong anti-slavery corporate culture, willingness to act, well-trained staff, and when there are meaningful partnerships between the provider and the end-user or beneficiary.

For non-governmental organisations (NGOs), this means training staff on the ground. For the multinational corporation with a complex global supply chain, it means having corporate leadership that will act on abuses and take responsibility. For police, it means having the processes to follow up leads and make sure information derived from cutting-edge tech is shared efficiently across agencies. In short, it means real partnership with robust processes in place.

Modern slavery is high on the agenda among TechUK members. As well as helping them with reporting, developing their corporate strategies and due diligence, TechUK has been involved with Tech Against Trafficking, a coalition of tech firms seeking to get effective technology into the hands of those working on modern slavery.

Just as crucial as the tech tools themselves, the initiative aims to form partnerships between the private, public and third sectors so that the tech can be in place and have the strongest and most meaningful impact.

Tech in action

There are some great examples of tech being used to tackle this issue.

The first is Unseen.org, which operates the UK Modern Slavery Helpline. This organisation developed a website and an app to make it easier to report modern slavery and support police officers when identifying signs of criminal activity.

Using a sophisticated Salesforce database, Unseen.org crunched its own data in a way previously not possible, to discover when and where the biggest risks are and identify the communities most vulnerable to exploitation. This enables local authorities, police and NGOs to conduct more effective evidence-led interventions.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also being used widely to spot patterns of modern slavery. A leading hotel chain partnered with a bank to predict if and when rooms might be used for sex trafficking by applying an AI layer to existing payment, room bookings and flight pricing data. Another hotel chain worked with Adobe to identify specific hotel rooms and locations used for potential child abuse and sex trafficking.

The police have access to AI that alerts forces to premises with elevated modern slavery risks, and councils are looking at data-sharing agreements to bring a wide range of datasets into play against this crime.

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In supply chains, where tech has a huge footprint, Adidas created an app to empower hundreds of thousands of supply chain workers to make suggestions, report abuses and health risks across more than 100 factories. This has already been used to act against suppliers and improve conditions.

Blockchain provider Provenance has proven use cases in improving supply chain transparency and an app called LaborVoices empowers migrant workers to understand what factories are like in countries they plan to move to.

These are just some examples of how tech can tackle this issue, but we need to keep pushing forward and raising it further up our industry’s agenda.

We want any tech or digital companies that are actively engaging on this to get in touch with us, but we also want to deepen our conversations with companies at different stages in their consideration of this issue, so that we can build best practice and ensure the tech sector leads the way in moving to a world free of modern slavery.

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