Fighting Modern Slavery in Supply Chains from the Bottom Up

20 December 2018
Research Innovation

Genevieve LeBaron  | Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield

Over the past two decades, the conversation about corporate social responsibility (CSR) for labour standards in supply chains has been focused on the power and potential of big brand companies to influence suppliers. Through private voluntary initiatives like social auditing, ethical certification and supplier codes of conduct, big multi-national corporations (MNCs) at the top of supply chains can use their leverage and commercial power to raise labour standards and prevent problems like forced labour among their Tier 1 suppliers, which directly supply goods or services to MNCs. Those suppliers can then influence labour standards across the sub-tiers of supply chains. Or so the story goes.

It’s a nice story, but this version of CSR remains a fairy tale. Workers have yet to see the happy ending they’ve been promised. Indeed, it’s time to face the facts: CSR has yielded little in terms of concrete results in terms of improving labour standards. As a growing body of evidence suggests, across several social and labour issue areas, there are serious gaps between CSR promises and actual outcomes. One of the most urgent and problematic failures of top-down CSR relates to its limited effectiveness in addressing forced labour, which tends to occur in outsourced, informal portions of labour and product supply chains.  Recent studies—including my own of the business of forced labour in global tea and cocoa supply chains—have documented the limited effectiveness of tools like social auditing, ethical certification schemes and codes of conduct, demonstrating that these initiatives are generally failing to disrupt the business models of forced labour. Some scholars have even questioned whether traditional CSR initiatives are pushing illegal labour practices deeper into the shadow informal tiers of global supply chains, making them harder for inspectors to find.

Construction site. Unsplash/Ivan Bandura.

In the face of growing recognition of the shortcomings of traditional CSR to address forced labour, companies, workers’ organizations and civil society are racing to pioneer and test new solutions. These include a range of initiatives to incorporate “workers’ voices”, better auditing methodologies and tech-driven solutions like blockchain. Worker-driven social responsibility programs are particularly promising, because they mandate that brands cover the costs of higher labour standards and because they meaningfully include workers in their design and implementation.

Some scholars have even questioned whether traditional CSR initiatives are pushing illegal labour practices deeper into the shadow informal tiers of global supply chains, making them harder for inspectors to find.

With the exception of worker-driven social responsibility, however, most of initiatives still centralize MNCs and brands, failing to take seriously the small businesses at the bottom of supply chains in developing countries. This is a peculiar omission since these are precisely the actors who are expected to change their practices. As my colleague Prof Andrew Crane explains, “it is exactly these entrepreneurs and their enterprises that could either be the major obstacles for effective change or a source of genuine innovation towards more responsible practice.”

For this reason, I’m collaborating on a project to investigate whether bottom-up initiatives by businesses at the bottom of the supply chain are more effective tools than top-down CSR in tackling forced labour. I’m doing so as part of a team of scholars led by Prof Andrew Crane at the University of Bath Management School. Our project is called “Combatting Modern Slavery Through Business Leadership at the Bottom of the Supply Chain”, and is funded by the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences and UK Department for International Development within their programme on “Tackling Slavery, Human Trafficking and Child Labour in Modern Business”. Our teammates are Professor Laura Spence at Royal Holloway, University of London, Dr Michael Bloomfield at University of Bath and Dr Vivek Soundararajan at University of Birmingham, in addition to a local research team in India.

Empirically, the project focuses on an in-depth case study of the garment sector in Tamil Nadu, India. The project has three main aims:

  • To systematically map the business actors and relationships in the sub-tiers of the garment supply chain in South India;
  • To determine the drivers and barriers for local firms to engage in proactive initiatives addressing forced labour; and
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives in combatting exploitation.

We are hopeful that this project will illuminate key obstacles that, to date, have stalled efforts to combat the business forced labour in supply chains. Given the challenges of raising labour standards amongst the often messily outsourced and highly informal sub-tiers of supply chains, seriously trying to understand the businesses that operate here and the patterns of exploitation associated with them strikes us as a promising area for research. Stay tuned, because I’ll report back on our progress in a future column here on Delta 8.7.

Genevieve LeBaron is 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:

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