Workers in the global supply chain—the women and men who make the clothes we wear and produce the food we eat—may not be the first people who come to mind when we discuss workplace data protection. However, like corporate offices, factories are digitizing rapidly—a change accelerated further by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, supply chain workers too often lack the information, skillsets, and power that provide resilience in the face of such disruptions.

This is especially true for women workers who are particularly vulnerable due to lower literacy levels, lower tech literacy, and social norms which often lead to women bearing increased burdens of care at home. Recognizing this, BSR examined the impacts of digital transformation on women workers in our new report, Digital Technology and Data in the Garment Supply Chain during COVID-19.

Through our research, BSR found that the pandemic catalyzed a surge in digitization, surveillance, and data collection in garment supply chains. Furthermore, we found that this surge is occurring at such a rapid rate that protections for workers and their rights are not keeping pace.  

Increasing Digitization and Data Collection in Factories

While the COVID-19 pandemic caused a surge in the risks associated with rapid digitization, data and technology use in the garment supply chain is not new.

Following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, where over a thousand workers died in the collapse of a Bangladeshi clothing factory due to unsafe building conditions, supply chain monitoring technologies increased in popularity, and worker data collection approaches multiplied. Seeking to both increase transparency in the garment supply chain and empower workers, companies and factories embraced technologies, such as worker voice applications, that provide mechanisms for workers to file grievances through their mobile phones.

However, technology is changing rapidly, and given the pace of change, previous guidance is out of date. There is a growing urgency for up-to-date international norms on workplace data protection. The guidance and advocacy that do exist primarily focus on higher-tech workplaces, such as logistics warehouses and offices, but do not cover factories with less technology and lower wage workers.

Human Rights Impacts on Workers, Specifically Women

Though digitization and data collection may increase transparency and productivity, human rights impacts should be considered due to the heightened vulnerability of workers in the garment supply chain.

The power imbalance that exists between employers and low-wage workers in garment factories makes factory workers highly vulnerable to breaches in protections of data. This is especially true given lower education levels and lack of awareness of implications of data collection—often resulting in lack of meaningful informed consent, for example.

Though intended to safeguard worker rights, increased digitization and data collection can impact privacy and non-discrimination rights, which in turn can impact other rights. Personal data leakage, for example, may lead to a worker being targeted for affiliation with a worker representation group—thereby infringing upon their right to freedom of expression. Personal health data acquisition may result in dismissal of women suspected of being pregnant to avoid compensating them for maternity leave.

What Companies and Stakeholders Can Do

The combined forces of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid rise in digitization and data collection in the workplace have exposed the need for stronger internationally accepted norms and standards around workplace data protection. New international standards—for example, an ILO convention that addresses workplace data protection, privacy, and nondiscrimination to help governments and businesses effectively safeguard workers’ data rights, especially the rights of women—will be key to ensuring rights are protected in the face of rapid digitization.

Companies can make an impact by advocating for such international actions. In addition, our report identifies several actions companies, including tech providers, can take to optimize positive impacts of the digital transformation and address its potential harms.  

One example would be for companies and tech providers to ensure worker representation—especially women workers—in the design, implementation, and governance of any workplace technology. Before implementing data collection mechanisms or processing data that might result in high risk to employees, companies should undertake human rights due diligence and Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIA) to identify, prevent, and mitigate human rights impacts.

Additionally, tech solution providers should adopt privacy-by-design principles to address potential challenges early on. Furthermore, tech providers can help promote workers’ rights by advocating for worker trainings on informed consent and collaborating with peers to adopt industry-wide principles that prioritize worker rights.

What Comes Next

Given the proliferation of workplace-monitoring technologies, alongside accelerated digitization of work due to COVID-19, it is essential that protections are established to account for this monumental shift in workplace data collection.

Whether it is improving supply chain codes of conduct, creating new international standards, or more deliberately integrating privacy issues into workplace human rights impacts assessments, it is essential that worker data protection is fully embedded into how we build back better.

Please see our report for full recommendations on how companies can protect worker data, and feel free to reach out to our team to learn more about our work on technology, human rights, and empowering women workers in the global supply chain.