Rise of robots fuels slavery threat for Southeast Asian factory workers, analysts say

Drastic job losses because of the growth of automation in the region – a hub for many manufacturing enterprises – are expected to increase labour abuses and slavery in global supply chains

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 5:56pm

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 because of the growth of automation in the region – a hub for many manufacturing enterprises, from garments to vehicles – could produce a spike in labour abuses and slavery in global supply chains, according to risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.

While robots have been a staple of the factory floor for decades, increased automation has already caused job losses in a number of industries.

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The United Nations’ International Labour Organisation has estimated that 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 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,” Channer said.

While technological innovation has always led to job losses – think lamplighters after the electric bulb or coachmen after the automobile – the potential for machines to handle repetitive tasks with little fatigue or error has taken a scythe through huge swathes of jobs across various trades. With artificial intelligence, even areas such as music and the arts, once thought to be impervious to the march of robots, have come under siege.

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“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.

Displaced workers without the skills to adapt … will have to compete for a diminishing supply of low-paid, low-skilled work
Alexandra Channer of consultancy Verisk Maplecroft

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, with Vietnam the country at most risk, according to Maplecroft in its annual report.

It predicted 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.

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.

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“Automation has always posed a risk to low-skilled jobs, but governments and business can determine how it impacts 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.”