Rise of robots fuels slavery threat for Asian factory workers – analysts

July 12, 2018 - 9:31 AM
Visitors are seen at a robots exhibition at a pavilion of the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (VDNKh) in Moscow, Russia July 10, 2018. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

LONDON — The rise of robots in manufacturing in Southeast Asia is likely to fuel modern slavery as workers who end up unemployed due to automation face abuses competing for a shrinking pool of low-paid jobs in a “race to the bottom”, analysts said on Thursday.

Drastic job losses due to the growth of automation in the region — a hub for many manufacturing sectors from garments to vehicles — could produce a spike in labor abuses and slavery in global supply chains, said risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

More than half of workers in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines — at least 137 million people – risk losing their jobs to automation in the next two decades, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) says.

The risk of slavery tainting supply chains will spiral as workers who lose their jobs due to increased robot manufacturing will be more vulnerable to workplace abuses as they jostle for fewer jobs at lower wages, said Alexandra Channer of Maplecroft.

“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,” the head of human rights at Britain-based Maplecroft said in a statement.

Farming, forestry and fishing, manufacturing, construction, retail and hospitality are the sectors in Southeast Asia where workers are most likely to be replaced by robots, Maplecroft said in an annual report, with Vietnam the country at most risk.

Workers in the garment, textile and footwear industry — mostly women in countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam — face the biggest threat from automation in the region, Maplecroft said.

The five countries the report lists are already considered high-risk for modern slavery as labour abuses are rife, wages low and the workforce dependent on low-skilled jobs, the firm said, with automation set to make things worse.

“Automation has always posed a risk to low-skilled jobs, but governments and business can determine how it impacts on workers,” said Cindy Berman of the Ethical Trading Initiative, a group of unions, firms and charities promoting workers’ rights.

“Technology can be disrupting, but it can also be part of the solution by creating opportunities for better jobs,” its head of slavery strategy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.—Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens