Blockchain Plays an Unlikely Role in the Global Battle for Human Rights

by Darren Kleine / February 04, 2020

It’s a nightmarish scenario that is sadly familiar to many who are seeking work in foreign countries. Slavery and human trafficking — these are criminal industries that continue to flourish in many regions across the globe. 

Such problems may seem distant and abstract to the average consumer in more developed regions, but it’s a very real problem for millions of people. Many retail products can be traced back through supply chains, linking consumers to some of the 45 million people in 167 countries that are reportedly trapped in modern slavery.

Larry Cameron, chief information security officer of the Anti-Human Trafficking Intelligence Initiative (ATII), shared with Cointelegraph concerns regarding the emerging usage of Bitcoin (BTC) and blockchain technology for criminal purposes. 

He pointed out that: “Bitcoin is utilized for ransomware payments, dark web, drugs, weapons and even human trafficking.” Cameron explained that the digital technology is “…heavily used by organized crime, hackers and scammers in order to launder funds.”

A number of agencies are attacking these same problems, teaming up with blockchain technology as an ally in the battle against crime. Previous reporting by Cointelegraph has detailed press release announcements regarding the launch of a program to attack these societal problems. In cooperation with the United Nations-led International Organization for Migration (IOM), Diginex launched IRIS-SAFER to protect migrant workers in Hong Kong, with plans to expand to more regions. 

Numerous software-based programs, squarely aimed at ending human trafficking, are joining the fight. In the United Kingdom, for example, IBM is working with a nonprofit organization named STOP THE TRAFFIK to put an end to human trafficking and modern slavery through the usage of “intelligence analysis software” that tracks the identities and locations of potential victims, and, ultimately, aims to disrupt trafficking processes at their source.


Speaking to Cointelegraph, Diginex head of government Mark Blick shared two major projects that use the Diginex platform to protect workers: the aforementioned IRIS-SAFER and Emin. 

Although IRIS-SAFER focuses on working cooperatively with United Nations governmental agencies and private companies to establish and broaden ethical recruitment practices, Emin is a cooperative effort between Diginex and the Mekong Club, an NGO focused on fighting modern slavery. Both projects involve cooperation on a large scale between public and private entities and the harnessing of blockchain technology to improve transparency and access to data.

The current recruitment process for migrant workers is rife with problems, Blick explained. Traditional methods are “highly paper-processed,” slow and inefficient. Records can easily be damaged or lost. By creating native digital information, the ease of acquiring and accessing information is greatly increased for all stakeholders. Blick added: “We can capture more information due to the ease of using the platform.” 

The most obvious example of worker abuse, Blick pointed out, is the charging of expensive recruitment fees by unethical agencies. Workers may wind up paying fees in the thousands of dollars for the privilege of being hired. In many cases, these vulnerable workers must take out high-interest loans, which are issued by the agencies, in order to pay off the fees. 

In addition, “thank-you” fees are often an expected gift: A migrant worker may be obligated to pay cash to recruiters as an act of gratitude for the securing of their role. Blick explained that this sort of information tends to be missed in traditional documentation and was not captured in previous data gathered about recruitment fees.

Indeed, such data can be recorded digitally by willing recruiting participants to distinguish themselves from competitors as a safer and more trustworthy option. Thus, safe corridors can be created for workers to make informed decisions about their employment journey. Referring to the open and transparent data, workers can freely access it to make choices, Blick said: 

“Here are corridors where large fees are charged, and here are corridors where large fees are not charged.”

Workers can thus be informed to freely choose the optimal corridors where they know they will be treated more fairly and will not face exorbitant costs charged by unethical recruiters.

Workers are also highly vulnerable to “contract substitution,” whereby the workers end up in a different job that has poor working conditions and lower pay. These workers can be trapped in low-paying jobs in foreign countries with crushing debt and limited means to return home safely.

Taking part

The Mekong Club offers a range of corporate tools to help companies address these issues. These tools include modern slavery expert presentations, educational resources regarding the problems of modern slavery, and detailed explanations of the applications and limitations of blockchain technology in the fight against modern slavery. 

In a collaborative effort between the Mekong Club and Diginex, Emin’s ethical recruitment platform has been launched in a number of regions. Beginning in Thailand, the program is spreading to the Middle East, Malaysia, Bangladesh and, most recently, Hong Kong. IRIS-SAFER launched in Hong Kong in December of 2019. Diginex is working in Hong Kong, as it is a popular migrant worker destination but is also working with agencies in countries of origin, from which the workers are migrating. 

The agencies that want to engage and want to lean on the expertise of the IOM can get help in achieving ethical practices and can “rise to the top” against competitors. Migrant workers benefit from the competition, finding companies that wish to hire through safe and ethical processes. Workers can easily see who to trust and what agencies offer the best practices. With IRIS-SAFER, recruitment agencies can prove they are compliant with ethical recruitment practices under the guidance of United Nations agencies. Blick added: 

“A migrant worker in their home country can find work through these ethical agencies and then travel to a place of work, say, a factory in another country,” Blick said. Workers could avoid exorbitant fees or unanticipated changes to working conditions or pay by choosing reputable recruitment agencies, he explained. Any creation or changes in contracts can be recorded, tracked and shared with stakeholders so they can see that ethical agencies are transparent and honest with their hiring practices.

Early days

The IRIS-SAFER program is currently in the early stages of deployment, building relationships with agencies interested in participating in the program. The current process, Blick explained, requires recruitment agencies to undergo training to complete a certification process that demonstrates they are up to ethical recruitment standards. 

New agencies are onboarded and then they engage with the platform. In this process, they answer questions regarding how they trend against IRIS ethical principles and provide documentation to support their self-assessment. 

The United Nations IOM offers feedback throughout this process to ensure ethical practices are being used. Blick told Cointelegraph: “We really need experts like the IOM to guide us in reaching out and deploying to as many countries as possible.” The IRIS-SAFER platform allows continuous back-and-forth engagement between the participating agencies and the IOM. According to Blick: 

“It gives agencies a gauge of how they’re trending toward the goal of ethical recruitment. Against these principles, how are you faring? What are your areas of strength? What are areas you could work on developing?” 

Doing the right thing is good for business

Being an ethical recruiter is a “value differentiator,” Blick said. A recruitment business that can prove it is following ethical practices will attract more clients and enjoy greater success. The platform deployed last year is enabled by blockchain technology and tracks the journeys of workers with all participating recruitment agencies digitally recording documentation. 

Blick believes that, eventually, this system will connect all the information with more potential stakeholders. NGO’s, legal departments, consulates, migration agencies and the United Nations are all looking to understand how agencies are trending on issues surrounding ethical recruitment, which can then influence legislation and policy. Blick added:

“This is a complex ecosystem with multiple stakeholders who are all looking to access information in order to understand trends. They all need access to trusted data with high degrees of integrity… I need to know that what I’m looking at is what you’re looking at.”

The ultimate goal

The end result, according to Diginex, is to improve ethical recruitment and, therefore, combat human trafficking and slavery. Blick went on:

“We know we can use blockchain to help drive transparency in the process of ethical recruitment… We can start to improve the lives of 40.3 million people who are affected by modern slavery.” 

When asked about how this ecosystem might work its way to retailers and, ultimately, consumers, Blick insisted that the system will absolutely work its way through the supply chain to consumers. In the early stages, the focus is on protecting the workers.

Blick also touched upon the early stages of growth and adoption, claiming that, so far, “feedback on that has been excellent” regarding the company’s initiatives. In terms of timelines for expansion, Blick explained that the goal is to increase scale and breadth as much as possible to grow the network.

“We are deliberately working with those people who we know want to do the right thing. We have a very willing and highly engaged audience who — for ethical or competitive reasons — want to do this. They have a desire to prove they are doing the right thing.”

ATII’s Larry Cameron reiterated the potential of blockchain innovations to change industries, emphasizing the technology is still young and needs time to grow: “Blockchain has the ability to disrupt pretty much every industry. It’s still in its early stages but will mature greatly in the next decade.”