• Automation tops a list of five issues in Verisk Maplecroft's annual Human Rights Outlook.
  • Over the next two decades, 56% of workers in the manufacturing hubs of Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam will lose their jobs due to automation, with the risk of slavery and trafficking in supply chains set to spiral.
  • The garment, textile and footwear industry as being at particular risk from automation within the ASEAN-5.
Softwear automation by Sewbots

Softwear automation by Sewbots

Drastic job losses in South East Asia resulting from the onset of robot manufacturing could produce a spike in slavery and labour abuses in global supply chains, particularly in the garment, textile and footwear industries, a new risk report is predicting.

Automation tops a list of five issues in the annual Human Rights Outlook, produced by risk analysis company Verisk Maplecroft, which are identified as presenting significant challenges to the reputations, operations and supply chains of multinational companies now and in the future. 

With the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO) estimating that over the next two decades 56% of workers in the manufacturing hubs of Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam will lose their jobs due to automation, the risk of slavery and trafficking appearing in supply chains will spiral, the report predicts.

This group of countries, known as the ASEAN-5, are particularly at risk due to the dependence of the workforce on low-skilled jobs and existing high levels of labour rights violations. All are currently rated as 'high risk' countries in Verisk Maplecroft's Modern Slavery Index, but their rankings and scores are forecast to deteriorate when the full impact of automation is felt.

The report stresses that South East Asia's manufacturing hubs will not be alone in facing the challenges posed by automation. But, the analysis singles out the region due to its importance to the global supply chains of multinational companies operating in the consumer goods, retail, hospitality and ICT sectors.

"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," says Verisk Maplecroft's head of human rights, Dr Alexandra Channer. "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."

To investigate how automation will impact supply chain workers, Verisk Maplecroft applied its industry-specific labour risk indices to the ILO data across 21 sectors where jobs are at high risk of replacement by automation. Retail and manufacturing were identified as the industries where the risk is highest, along with agriculture, forestry and fishing, construction, and hospitality.

The report flagged Vietnam as the highest risk of the five countries studied, where 67% of workers – 36m people – will be seeking alternative livelihoods in an environment where the risk of exploitation is already high.

Given the baseline of exploitation across the ASEAN-5 and the numbers of workers affected, the report concludes that the risk of slavery and trafficking will likely rise significantly.

Verisk Maplecroft flags the garment, textile and footwear industry as being at particular risk from automation within the ASEAN-5. The sector employs 59% of all manufacturing workers in Cambodia and 39% in Vietnam. Any job displacement from this sector will therefore impact a large proportion of the entire manufacturing workforce, the majority of whom are women.

In both Vietnam and Cambodia, over 85% of garment, textile and footwear jobs are at high risk of automation, and over 76% of these jobs are held by women. That means roughly 2.6m Vietnamese women and over 600,000 Cambodian women will lose their jobs and compete for work in an industry already exposed to a high risk of labour violations. With fewer women in work – or more women forced into slavery – these countries will also struggle to achieve their UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on gender equality, the report says.

"The adoption of automation technologies by companies will be gradual, but the unintended consequences for millions of workers in brand supply chains is likely to be severe," continues Channer. "Responsible sourcing departments, in particular, need to identify and understand the adverse effects of automation on human rights, and work with civil society and governments to mitigate the impacts within their own supply chains."

Click here to access the full report.