There’s a Lot We Don’t Know About the Business of Forced Labour

23 August 2018
Research Innovation

Genevieve LeBaron  | Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield

Media exposés and activist campaigns consistently remind us of the role that forced labour plays in modern business. Rich multinational corporations, we are told, are profiting from modern slavery in their global supply chains and are tainting Western consumer markets with slavery-made goods. This characterization isn’t wrong, per se, but the overwhelming focus on high-level business relations has created serious gaps and blind spots in our understanding of the business of forced labour and solutions to it.

In recent years, as activists have succeeded in raising awareness about modern slavery and linking such practices to wealthy and powerful multinational corporations with carefully cultivated brand reputations, calls for corporate accountability and responsibility have intensified. Governments and industry are now racing to combat forced labour in global supply chains. Recent legislation passed in France, the United Kingdom and California attempts to spur corporate efforts to address the problem by requiring large companies to report on efforts to prevent and address modern slavery in their supply chains. Consumer-facing multinational corporations are stepping up their corporate social responsibility efforts, using tools like ethical auditing and certification to combat forced labour.

Welder at work. Unsplash/Christopher Burns

Given the severe levels of human suffering at stake, forced labour is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed. But the reality is there is surprisingly little reliable data on the business of forced labour, research is in its early stages, and our knowledge is still very thin.

We do not know much, for instance, about the scope and geography of the problem. Scholars tend to associate forced labour with complex global supply chains led by multinational companies incorporated in developed countries. But is it really true that these supply chains carry the highest risks for forced labour? Or is that simply where activists and scholars have been focusing their attention? There is little research to confirm that, say, seafood produced in Thailand for consumption in the UK would have a higher risk of forced labour in its supply chain than seafood destined for local consumption. Yet, it is only the former that is being targeted within prevailing solutions. There is a danger that large swathes of global economic activity are being left uninvestigated and uncovered, including supply chains concentrated within national borders producing goods for domestic consumption, supply chains that are led by companies that are not branded or well-known to consumers, and the ever-growing proportions of world trade flowing between developing nations. There is reason for concern that the business of forced labour is even more prevalent within these chains.

The solitary focus on multinational corporations has also meant that there are substantive gaps in our knowledge about how forced labour works as a business. As Andrew Crane and I discuss in a forthcoming book chapter, we know remarkably little about the business and organizational dynamics of forced labour and its patterns within supply chains, including how and why forced labour is deployed as part of a business model; why forced labour is used by some business actors and not others; why it tends to appear in some portions of supply chains and not others; how businesses profit from forced labour; and the conditions under which businesses get caught or get away with it.

But there is a need to take seriously a range of business dynamics and actors and to develop a more precise understanding of how business models of forced labour operate on the ground.

The focus on multinational corporations at the top has often drawn attention away from the smaller and often more informal business actors that actually perpetrate forced labour on the ground. Too often, these businesses are simply written off as criminal individuals or unscrupulous employers. But the reality is, rather than occurring randomly in modern industry, the business of forced labour operates according to coherent, economically rational patterns. Without an understanding of these patterns, it is hard for company auditors or government labour inspectors to know where to look for forced labour, or to recognize it when they find it. 

If we want to eradicate the business of forced labour, we need a better understanding of the problem. Without a doubt, the world’s largest multinational corporations have a profound influence on working conditions across dozens of countries and exert considerable market power. But there is a need to take seriously a range of business dynamics and actors and to develop a more precise understanding of how business models of forced labour operate on the ground.

I take up this challenge in my research. I am currently working on a few different projects that investigate the business dynamics of forced labour in diverse industries and national settings, using research methods like digital surveys, interviews and supply chain mapping. I am interested in understanding the factors that create business demand for forced labour within supply chains; the characteristics of the businesses that use forced labour in various industries; and the effectiveness of corporate social responsibility initiatives like ethical certification and auditing in combatting the business of forced labour.

In this column, I’ll share the results of my research, discuss its implications for policy, and reflect on the challenges of conducting ethical and reliable empirical research in this area. In my next column, I’ll introduce my ongoing project on the business of forced labour in tea and cocoa supply chains. 

Genevieve LeBaron is a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and co-chair of the Yale University Working Group on Modern Slavery. Follow her on twitter: @glebaron. Read more about her research:

This article has been prepared by Genevieve LeBaron as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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