Rise of robots fuels slavery threat to Asian factory workers, analysts claim
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The rise of robots in manufacturing in south-east 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”, according to risk consultancy group Verisk Maplecroft.
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 labour abuses and slavery in global supply chains, the analysts claim.
More than half of workers in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines – approximately 137 million people – risk losing their jobs to automation in the next two decades, the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (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, head of human rights, 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.”
Farming, forestry and fishing, manufacturing, construction, retail and hospitality are the sectors in south-east Asia where workers are most likely to be replaced by robots, Maplecroft noted in its annual report, with Vietnam the country identified as being most at 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.
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, with automation set to only make matters 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, head of slavery strategy, 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,” Berman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.