Using satellites to tackle modern slavery

Posted: 16 July 2021 | | No comments yet

Researchers carry out novel approach using satellites in an effort to improve the lives of migrant workers in Southern Greece and tackle modern slavery.


Modern slavery experts, led by the University of Nottingham, have assisted the Greek government to tackle a humanitarian crisis unfolding in the strawberry fields of southern Greece.

Using satellite technology to identify migrant settlements – pioneered by the university’s Rights Lab – and working with the Greek authorities, the experts developed a decision model for which they could prioritise the highest risk victims. 

How satellite technology was used

The Rights Lab combined different data sources and methods to build a set of criteria to measure any labour exploitation in a settlement. The academics then validated these criteria with a government agency and a non-governmental organisation (NGO) involved in fighting labour exploitation.

The earth observation data was combined with the operations management techniques to successfully address the extent of any labour exploitation in strawberry fields.

But according to the researchers, fighting labour exploitation in the agricultural sector requires time-intensive fieldwork, as it involves visiting suspected farms and informal worker settlements, which governments and humanitarian organisations often lack the resources to do.

Using remote sensing, for real-time data collection, allowed the academics to overcome one of the major obstacles of research in humanitarian operations, namely the difficulty of accessing data due to safety and logistical issues limiting access to the field. 

Once areas of potential exploitation had been identified through satellite imagery, these settlements were investigated and verified – known as ‘ground-truthing’. On the ground, the inspection teams collected data from each settlement using questionnaires to address all criteria required for the decision analysis model that the academics had prepared.

Next, the academics used Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA), a method for decision-making to formalise and address the problem of competing decision objectives.

With the use of the MCDA model each settlement was then ranked, this was to assist the government and humanitarian organisations to intervene in the top-priority settlements (from the most risky to least) and allocate resources to the most vulnerable migrant workers, with the ultimate aim of improving their living conditions.

Strawberry fields and modern slavery

The strawberry fields of Nea Manolada have been in the human rights spotlight since May 2013, when three local field guards shot and injured 30 Bangladeshi migrant workers. In March 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the workers were subjected to forced labour, meaning that Greece had violated Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to prevent human trafficking of the workers. Following a Court ruling, the Greek government was mandated to ramp-up its fight against labour exploitation. 

“The use of seasonal workers, the relatively low level of skills required, a strong reliance on outsourcing and agent-based recruitment of workers increase the likelihood of labour exploitation,” commented study lead, Dr Ioannis Kougkoulos of the Rights Lab. “Forced migration caused by crises around the world exacerbates this phenomenon. Refugees and migrants often live-in illegality and experience serious financial distress, which puts them at high risk of becoming victims of labour exploitation.

“Governments are responsible for ensuring equal treatment for migrant and national workers on their territory, and to protect migrants from being employed under substandard working conditions.”

Dr Doreen Boyd, a co-author and Rights Lab’s Associate Director added: “We have demonstrated how remote sensing data enables the identification and location of informal settlements of workers in potential situations of labour exploitation over a large geographic area (140km2). Identifying these settlements from the ground would require driving around the entire study area in search of possible settlements, which would be costly and ineffective, since many settlements are not visible from the road.”

Dr Boyd explained that the approach could be replicated in other labour-intensive agricultural activities in which cheap labour is abundant – for example Italian tomato fields – and that further studies could extend the applications to which the method could be applied.

The study, which has been described as a “world first”, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and published in the journal of Production and Operations Management.

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