Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Topic: Supply chains

We need to focus on leadership at the bottom of the supply chain to combat modern slavery

📥  Modern slavery, Research, Supply chains

 

Social auditing, the main tool used by multinational companies to address poor working conditions, is increasingly recognised to be ineffective in tackling modern slavery, particularly at the bottom of the supply chain. In this piece, Andrew Crane argues that a different approach is needed, and introduces a new research project which will seek to identify specific ‘bottom-up’ local solutions to modern slavery.

 

Multinational companies’ attempts to combat modern slavery in global supply chains have so far been largely unsuccessful. The main approach used by large western companies to address poor working conditions is that of responsible sourcing. This relies heavily on enforcing codes of conduct through social auditing of supplier factories. Evidence suggests that this approach has met with limited success in improving working conditions in general, and has had little effect in tackling modern slavery.

 

Activity at the bottom of the supply chain

A key stumbling block in using this approach is the difficulty of tracing the informal, unregulated, and often covert business activities that take place at the bottom of the supply chain. These might include the use of unauthorised subcontractors, unlicensed labour providers, and audit cheating by factory managers. The problem is that they often take place beyond the watchful eyes of those auditors employed by big brand companies to ensure their products are not tainted by exploitative labour practices. Modern slavery practices, in particular, tend to be buried in layers of subcontracting that simply make regular approaches to social auditing unfit for purpose.

Clearly, a more effective way of tackling modern slavery needs to be developed. While various ideas have been suggested and are being trialled, from technological solutions based on blockchain to worker apps that record working hours or report human rights violations, a more fundamental rethink may be necessary.

 

Local initiatives

One set of actors that have yet to be taken very seriously in tackling modern slavery are those who are actually working at the bottom of global supply chains - the small businesses based in developing countries operating  in the sub-tiers of these chains. However, 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.

It is important when we are dealing with an issue like modern slavery that local perspectives are taken account and that local initiatives or experiments to try and tackle abuse are recognised and evaluated. Big brands certainly do not have the monopoly on designing solutions to the problem of extreme exploitation. Sometimes it is those closest to the problem, and with more skin in the game, that can be the source of the most promising new approaches.

 

New research

This is why, together with my colleagues Genevieve LeBaron (University of Sheffield), Laura Spence (Royal Holloway, University of London), Michael Bloomfield (University of Bath) and Vivek Soundararajan (University of Birmingham) we have designed what we believe is the first large scale academic research project exploring business relationships in the sub-tiers of global supply chains. The project has been funded by the British Academy in partnership with the UK Department for International Development as part of a major new programme on “Tackling Slavery, Human Trafficking and Child Labour in Modern Business.”

We will seek to identify innovative solutions from local actors and evaluate different points of leverage for effective action against modern slavery. Our prime focus is an in-depth case study of the garment industry in Tamil Nadu, India: a major export region for textiles and clothing destined for UK high streets.

We know that forced and bonded labour, sexual abuse, and other forms of exploitation are common in these sub-tiers in Tamil Nadu. Poor, female workers are often the most likely victims. Big brands have found it difficult to monitor and regulate these practices. In contrast, our pilot fieldwork in Tamil Nadu (conducted earlier this year) indicates that local business actors, including factory owners, labour market intermediaries, and training institutes, have begun trying to address these problems in a different way.

For example, local labour market agents are introducing “responsible recruitment” initiatives to try to provide an alternative to unscrupulous recruiters. Likewise, local entrepreneurs are experimenting with relocating manufacturing sites closer to the areas where potential workers live. This can counteract the role of labour market intermediaries in exploiting workers. However, these types of initiatives have gone unrecognised by big brand multinationals and appear to have emerged at some points in the supply chain within Tamil Nadu, but not others. They have also proved to be successful in addressing some forms of exploitation, but not others.

 

Project aims

Therefore, our project has three main aims:

1) To systematically map the business actors and relationships in the sub-tiers of the garment supply chain in South India;

2) To determine the drivers and barriers for local firms to engage in proactive initiatives addressing modern slavery; and

3) To evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives in combatting exploitation.

Ultimately, our goal is to identify specific ‘bottom-up’ local solutions to modern slavery and to share these with key actors in business, government and civil society looking to tackle the problem.

We are hopeful that we will be bringing to light some critical new insights on what works and what does not work in the battle to address modern slavery in global supply chains. Focusing on the entrepreneurial spirit of local actors at the bottom of the supply chain is a vital, but so far overlooked, place to start.

 

Header image by Ryan under licence CC BY 2.0

 

Overseas anti-slavery initiatives flourish, but domestic governance gaps persist

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📥  Business and society, Modern slavery, Policy, Research, Supply chains

 

UK-based companies are ramping up efforts to combat slavery in their overseas supply chains. But according to Andrew Crane and Genevieve LeBaron, companies also need to be working harder to address the severe labour exploitation taking place at home.

 

The passage of the UK 2015 Modern Slavery Act has prompted companies to be more open about their efforts to combat forced labour in global supply chains. To date, hundreds of companies have published modern slavery statements as required by the Act. These statements depict the problem of forced labour as a hidden and illegal practice that is seeping into complex overseas supply chains, in spite of companies’ extensive efforts to protect human rights. Companies describe their efforts to prevent and address forced labour and human trafficking through the use of ethical auditing, certification schemes, supplier codes of conduct, awareness-raising and the installation of responsible sourcing managers. This is centred on vulnerable and faraway workers, such as in the Thai fishing industry or the Bangladeshi garments sector.

There is without doubt value in company efforts to combat forced labour in supply chains operating in countries where national regulatory enforcement of labour standards is weak. Seldom acknowledged, however, is the fact that the problem is not exclusive to developing countries in the global south, but is also prevalent in developed countries in the north, including the UK.

As we document in our research published in the journal Regulation & Governance, regulatory and enforcement gaps surround the use of forced labour in global supply chains as well as supply chains located within UK borders. Problems such as the weak enforcement of labour law, poor oversight over labour providers and limited transparency in labour supply chains – combined with immigration laws that render migrant workers vulnerable to forced labour – mean that forced labour continues to thrive in UK-based industries.

Many companies source from domestic supply chains in which forced labour is known to be a problem. These include the food, construction, garment and household goods industries, as well as those linked to services such as car washes and cleaning. Yet, companies reporting on their anti-slavery efforts rarely mention these UK-based supply chains or their vulnerable workforces, choosing instead to focus on workers in their sourcing networks overseas – instead of the presumably easier option of fighting forced labour at home.

This blind spot may stem from the assumption that the UK government is already handling the problem of forced labour within its borders, so companies do not need to. However, as highlighted in our research, design flaws in public regulatory initiatives and poor enforcement mean that regulatory gaps frequently referred to as ‘decent work deficits’ in the developing world could also occur in the UK.

The risk of forced labour in UK supply chains was acknowledged by department store chain John Lewis in its 2016-2017 Human Rights and Modern Slavery Report, following the high-profile 2016 conviction of one of its UK bed suppliers Kozee Sleep for exploiting a ‘slave workforce’ to make beds sold in John Lewis stores. The company report notes that UK workers are at risk of slavery, due to “informal recruitment in seasonal supply chains” and the “lack of scrutiny of labour providers”. However, it is not clear how exactly the company plans to address these risks.

The Kozee Sleep case also underscores the shortcomings of company initiatives to monitor labour and social standards. According to several newspaper reports, Kozee Sleep passed an ‘ethical’ audit just weeks before it got busted for forced labour. As The Independent reported, “ethical audits by a series of firms including John Lewis, Next, and Dunelm Mill failed to spot their supplier was employing foreign workers for less than £2 a day”. If ethical audits cannot detect forced labour in the UK, how effective are these tools abroad, where audit cheating and corruption are documented to be widespread?

Although the reports provide some detail about the initiatives that companies are taking to prevent and address forced labour, they very seldom report on theeffectiveness of those efforts. For instance, when problems like the Kozee Sleep case are acknowledged, companies often respond by making vague references to training programs to help suppliers and service providers share good practice, or to generic ethical auditing programs. For instance, Tesco’s modern slavery statement describes the requirement for all of its UK suppliers to attend a one-day training on modern slavery that “offers a support network where challenges and good practice can be shared among peers and experts”. While this may be a valuable initiative, the company does not report on how effective this program is in actually addressing the pattern of forced labour that has by now been well-documented in UK agricultural supply chains. This makes it difficult to assess whether or not progress is being made.

Big business has a long way to go if it is serious about reducing its reliance on forced labour in the developing world. But the governance gaps surrounding forced labour in global supply chains are not the only ones to persist in the wake of the Modern Slavery Act’s passage. Companies looking to fight forced labour should start with their domestic supply chains, where they have high visibility, traceability and control as well as strong state resources that they could mobilise, if they really wanted to.

 

This article was originally published under a Creative Commons Licence by Beyond Trafficking and Slavery on the Open Democracy website. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery seeks to help those trying to understand forced labour, trafficking and slavery by combining the rigour of academic scholarship with the clarity of journalism. 

A more extensive version of this piece was recently published in the academic journal Regulation and Governance. For download options, please see the Wiley Online Library.

Image by Nick Saltmarsh

 

Tackling child labour in the fashion industry - why the best firms have the most to lose

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📥  Business and society, Consumers, Human rights, Modern slavery, Policy, Supply chains

 

New research suggests that firms with a good reputation for ethical sourcing in the fashion industry are judged more harshly than their peers when child labour is discovered in their supply chainMeggan Caddey, a final year PhD student, and Johanne Grosvold and Stephen Pavelin, all from the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath, explain their findings.

Child labour remains a major societal challenge. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 168 million children are involved in child labour today, which the United Nations (UN) defines as “work for which the child is either too young – work done below the required minimum age – or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is altogether considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited”. Many of these children work in the garment and fashion apparel industry.

The drive for child labour

According to the organisation Stop Child Labour, fast fashion has resulted in high demand for children who are willing to work for very low pay and in dangerous conditions. Some have suggested that their employment is tantamount to modern day slavery. Some of our best known high street brands including Adidas, H&M and Nike have relied on manufacturers who have subsequently been exposed as using children to work in unsafe conditions.

Increasingly, global firms are recognising that failure to address the challenge of child labour can seriously impact on their corporate reputation. However fashion supply chains are complex, relying on numerous suppliers, sub suppliers and manufacturers. According to H&M’s Head of Sustainability Helena Helmersson, these supply chain networks are so complex that “it is impossible to be in full control”.

Corporate responsibility and corporate reputation

Prior research indicates that, by going above and beyond the basic requirements for fulfilling their corporate social responsibilities, proactive firms can engender goodwill that acts as an insurance against potential damage to their reputation.  The theory goes that if news of wrongdoing emerges from the supply chain of such a proactive firm, its reputation will suffer less because people will give it the benefit of the doubt - 'surely, this good firm must not be to blame'. Other firms that have no such record of exemplary behaviour would be more readily blamed and, as a result, their reputations would suffer more. According to this theory, H&M would suffer less of a reputational impact if child labour was uncovered in its supply chain, as it is now working strategically to become the most ethical fashion chain on the high street. We set out to test this theory in relation to supply chains in the apparel industry.

Research findings

Our study used an experimental vignette method. This involved presenting study participants with carefully constructed, lifelike scenarios, to evaluate their attitudes, opinions and views of a firm’s actions regarding child labour in the fashion supply chain. Over 800 participants took part in our study, and our initial results are surprising. We found that a firm that had taken steps to address child labour and unsafe working conditions in its supply chain enjoyed a better reputation than a firm that had not. However, when something went wrong, people judged these firms more harshly than they did the firms that had previously behaved less responsibly. So, while firms that are more socially responsible tend to benefit from an improved reputation, such goodwill is accompanied by greater reputational risks - specifically, such a firm experiences greater harm to its reputation if unsafe labour practices are subsequently discovered in its supply chain.

Our findings imply that it is in firms’ interests to address unsafe practices in their supply chains, as doing so results in a better corporate reputation. However, our results also suggest that steps taken to stamp out child labour and poor working conditions tend to strengthen the imperative for a firm to maintain a consistent commitment to responsible sourcing. If they don’t, they risk particularly stringent reputational punishment. In effect, this can create something of a virtuous cycle, which gives momentum to firm's steps towards stamping out child labour and unsafe working conditions. Careful reputation management implies that firms setting high standards must continue to live up to them.

The business case for doing good

There is an increased policy emphasis from both governments and NGOs to reduce the use of child labour and unsafe working conditions in the supply chain. There is also evidence that firms are increasingly taking the problem of child labour seriously, with some estimates suggesting that reliance on child labour was reduced by 30% from 2002-2012. As our research shows, tackling this issue can bring benefits for both children and firms.

We provide distinctive new evidence that guides us towards a more detailed understanding of the business case for being good and doing good. By illustrating the reputational benefits of sustainable supply chain practices, our research findings can help motivate firms not already on board, and inspire those who have already taken action to sustain and expand their efforts. This may in turn encourage them to sign up to independent initiatives such as  GoodWeave, which awards companies the right to carry the GoodWeave label if they can show that no child labour or bonded labour was used in the production of their goods. With 11% of the world’s children still sacrificing school in order to work, this is no time for business to be complacent.

Image by Zoriah

 

 

Brexit likely to increase modern slavery in the UK

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📥  Brexit, Modern slavery, Policy, Supply chains

 

Theresa May’s historic signing of Article 50 looks set to be her lasting legacy as Prime Minister. Unfortunately, it is also likely to derail her other signature policy on modern slavery. Our research suggests Brexit could increase modern slavery in the UK.

The signing of Article 50 marks the point of no return for the UK’s exit from the European Union. Although she inherited the Brexit decision, Theresa May’s political legacy will stand and fall on how successfully she manages to steer the country through the turmoil.

Without a doubt, Article 50 will bring untold changes to the political, economic and cultural landscape of the country. One change that will certainly be high on May’s radar is its effect on modern slavery in the UK.

Modern slavery has been May’s signature policy since she was Home Secretary. She introduced the landmark Modern Slavery Act in 2015 prior to becoming PM, and has since continued to champion the cause. In announcing a ramping up of Government efforts to improve enforcement last year, she identified modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time” and heralded the UK as leading the way in defeating it.

While the Act is far from perfect, it has certainly focused increased attention and resources on modern slavery. Prosecution levels also appear to be improving. This was most recently illustrated by the sentencing of the Markowski brothers to six years in prison for trafficking and then exploiting 18 people from Poland, who they brought to the UK to work in a Sports Direct warehouse.

The problem is, despite the advances gradually being made in addressing modern slavery in the UK, the signing of Article 50 is likely to worsen the problem. As May is probably acutely aware (but is so far not saying), Brexit may well undermine the progress she has made to date. It is a case of two steps forward, one step back.

According to research I conducted with an international team of colleagues looking at forced labour in the UK (initially funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), four main problems are evident.

1.      Brexit will increase the demand for modern slavery

The Brexit vote has already created uncertainty among the legions of poorly paid, but legal migrant workers from Eastern Europe that are employed in the UK’s low wage economy. Signing Article 50 may ultimately help stem the flow of workers into the country as intended. But who is going to replace them? Domestic workers will fill some of the gaps but companies are unlikely to be willing to improve wages and conditions to attract them in sufficient numbers. So there will be greater opportunities for unscrupulous middlemen to traffic in workers from overseas or prey on vulnerable UK citizens to force them into exploitative situations. Forced labour flourishes where local, low skilled labour is in short supply.

2.      Brexit will facilitate exploitation

Modern slavery often occurs when workers do not fully understand their legal rights and status. Our research uncovered various examples of migrant workers being exploited because those exploiting them misled them into the belief that they were working illegally. Perpetrators would also wait for or deliberately engineer changes in workers’ immigration status in order to exploit them. The point is that Brexit will create a period of increased uncertainty around legal status that will be a significant boon to exploiters.

3.      Brexit will increase the supply of modern slavery

Modern slavery occurs when people are vulnerable, either because of legal status, poverty, mental health, or drug and alcohol problems. In our research, the most common victims were those from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria who, at the time, were able to enter the country but were unable to work legally. This vulnerability was exploited by perpetrators who were able to coerce them into working in highly exploitative situations. The more the UK puts up barriers to people entering the country legally, the higher the risk of traffickers bringing them in illegally and pushing them into debt. Once workers are in debt, perpetrators are adept at escalating their indebtedness and creating situations of debt bondage.

4.      Brexit will turn victims into criminals

Our research found that many victims of forced labour in the UK were prosecuted under immigration offences rather than being identified as victims. The Modern Slavery Act has improved this situation but as the UK moves towards Brexit, the chances of this happening will increase because policing around immigration status is likely to intensify far more than around modern slavery.

May claims that under her leadership, “Britain will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery”. But the bottom line is that by triggering Brexit, May will be left trying to solve a problem that she is helping create.

Image: Migrant Workers by Bread for the World

Is this the beginning of the end for Fairtrade?

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📥  Business and society, Supply chains

iain-daviesAfter decades of fast growth, a reversal in the fortunes of Fairtrade is apparent. This is particularly so for the Alternative Trading Organisations (ATOs) that spearheaded the movement, but which have become its first casualties. Dr Iain Davies asks what the future holds for Fairtrade.  

I remember cold, wet February mornings standing outside supermarkets and handing out free cups of coffee in an attempt to get the supermarket to stock Fairtrade products from ATOs. I remember walking into classrooms to eager faces waiting to hear how we can change the world through trade. It is now 20 years since those first Fairtrade Fortnights, and this week it is rolling around again with the brash claim that “the Fairtrade movement is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their communities”. The energy and vigour of this early social movement has however noticeably waned in recent years. This year, it is not just the British weather which is casting a dark shadow over proceedings. The question is being asked – is Fairtrade finished?

Fairtrade’s growth for much of those 20 years was meteoric. The Fairtrade mark not only became almost universally recognised, but inadvertently paved the way for the sustainability certifications that proliferate across fast moving consumables today. The UK led the way in the mass-marketization of Fairtrade, and still represents over 25% of all Fairtrade sales globally. But the future outlook has taken a noticeable turn for the worse.

Fairtrade-dave-crosby

Fairtrade by Dave Crosby

Fairtrade sales in the UK fell for the first time in 2015/16 by 5%. There is one growth area: bananas, a market dominated by one global supplier, Fyffes. Banana sales volumes are equivalent to that of cane sugar, coffee, cocoa, tea and cotton combined - all of which have seen volumes stagnate since 2011. Banana producers also benefit far more from Fairtrade membership, while smallholder-dominated categories like coffee and tea need to rely on other certification marks like Organic or Utz Certified to improve income.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Fairtrade benefits to producers (data from Fairtrade.net 2015 Monitoring and Impact report)

In the shops, growth has been in supermarket own-label products, often produced with reduced standards and limited producer support and development. The casualties are the pioneering ATOs, such as Traidcraft, Cafédirect, Divine and Liberation, who operate to much higher levels of producer support and development, but due to price competition and reduced shelf space, have seen like-for-like sales slump in the last five years. There have also been notable failures as new Fairtrade product categories such as gold, rice and quinoa have struggled to gain traction.

To further compound the issue, one of the biggest Fairtrade brands, Cadbury, has announced its intention to withdraw from the independent certification system in 2017, following others such as Starbucks into predominantly self-verified ethical certification. McDonald's and John Lewis Café have jumped to simpler verification systems such as Rainforest Alliance. 2017 certainly does not look rosy for Fairtrade.

There is also the issue of the consumer. Still largely unable to differentiate Fairtrade from other certification systems, our research suggests that frequent Fairtrade consumption is motivated by habit, self-gratification and peer influence, not a deep affinity with Fairtrade or its producers. These consumers are unlikely to switch brands purely because of a change in certification system.

So is the end of Fairtrade nigh? The idealistic social movement I joined, which believed it could subvert the market system, died some years ago. The Fairtrade which works within the existing market system to highlight issues of social injustice, however, and provides a framework for alternative trading, has nudged many commodity companies to confront their supply chain ethics. Indeed for people of this persuasion it could be argued the job is done. The more advisory role negotiated with Cadbury could offer a future to the certification bodies as they attempt to stay relevant to a corporatized, self-accredited system of supply chain governance.

But there remains a nagging feeling in my mind that the absorption of Fairtrade ideals into mainstream rhetoric has come at a cost. Not only has there been a reduction in the number of Fairtrade standards; one voice which may be noticeably absent this Fairtrade Fortnight is that of the pioneer ATOs that spearheaded this social movement. Increasingly delisted from supermarket shelves and priced out of the market by cheaper alternatives, they are struggling to break even whilst maintaining beyond Fairtrade commitments to producers. Ultimately, with an apathetic consumer and so many rhetorically similar marketing messages, it is these farmer owned, co-operative, or social enterprise pioneers that are likely to be the first casualty of Fairtrade’s demise.