Examining the role of Regulation, Data, and AI in Tackling Modern Slavery

A cupped hand holding a chain

Potential future pathways to tackle modern slavery were laid out at a workshop bringing together industry and academic experts in Lancaster.

Tackling Modern Slavery: The Role of Regulation, Data, and AI at Lancaster Castle focused on attempts to improve corporate transparency with the aim of combating modern slavery.

The workshop was organised by the Department of Accounting and Finance at Lancaster University Management School (LUMS), in conjunction with the International Centre for Research in Accounting (ICRA) and the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business’s newly-established Modern Slavery, Justice and Complex Supply Chains Knowledge and Action Hub.

Practitioners from Primark, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Wikirate joined marketing, operations research, and accounting researchers to share insights and explore collaboration opportunities.

Dr Mahmoud Gad, co-organiser for the event, said: “Regulation, data and Artificial Intelligence all have roles to play in addressing modern slavery across the globe.

“By bringing together experts from industry, NGOs and academia, we were able to see where we can work together to help turn this potential into collaboration and change.”

Auréliane Frohlich, project manager at Wikirate, delivered a keynote address explaining how the Wikirate open data platform is pioneering crowdsourced data to understand modern slavery compliance and drive change.

Company reporting on modern slavery and human rights is just one of the Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) features that Wikirate collect information on. Wikirate work in partnership with Walk Free and Minderoo Foundation to develop detailed coding templates for companies reporting under the UK and Australian modern slavery acts. Volunteers implement the templates, collect data, and score a small number.

More than 3,320 reports have been assessed, and analysis reveals that most companies (81% in the UK) do not comply with relevant legislation. Of those companies that do, only 25% go beyond basic compliance. The results show stricter reporting requirements in Australia are associated with higher quality disclosures.

Wikirate’s work shows transparency levels overall are low, with fewer than half of companies disclosing information on their supply chain and less than 15% identifying instances of modern slavery therein. When modern slavery activity is detected, only 12% of companies provide direct worker remediation, while 34% cancel contracts.

The workshop audience discussed the relative merits of an exit strategy versus a voice strategy where instances of modern slavery are detected, as well as opportunities for further research and collaboration using the Wikirate dataset.

Dr Gad showcased joint research with Lancaster’s School of Computing and Communications that uses AI methods to score modern slavery statements.

“The work is part of a project to develop an app to help companies improve the quality of their reporting by identifying reporting weaknesses and then offering suggestions for improvements,” said Dr Gad.

“Our initial tests suggest that an AI process can replicate detailed manual coding of modern slavery reporting practice with an accuracy rate of nearly 80%. We already have further work underway aimed at improving accuracy rates.”

The workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion on the roles of regulation and reporting in helping to eradicate modern slavery, chaired by Professor Jan Bebbington, Director of the Pentland Centre, Distinguished Professor Linda Hendry, and Professor Steve Young, both of LUMS.

Panellists highlighted significant barriers to more effective regulation, including the challenge of enforcing compliance across international borders.

“There was a consensus that existing regulations often lack the teeth necessary to compel meaningful corporate action,” said Professor Young. “What the discussions highlighted was that there are significant opportunities for stronger industry-academic collaboration.

“Many of the participants stressed the importance of adopting a common language and enhancing communication strategies between industry and academia, something that is crucial for fostering mutual understanding and effective cooperation.

“We have come away from the meeting recognising that there is considerable potential for collaboration. Working together, industry and academia can drive substantial improvements for workers and in promoting a more ethical and accountable corporate environment for all stakeholders.”

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