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

Posted in: 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

Posted in: Modern slavery, Research, Supply chains


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