Five things researchers are telling us about what’s going wrong in business and modern slavery

Posted in: Conferences, CSR, Human rights, Modern slavery

Throughout October, we’ll be hosting a Crossing Boundaries takeover, exploring issues around modern slavery to mark Anti-Slavery Day on the 18th.

We recently brought together the largest ever collection of researchers of business and modern slavery at the 2023 Crossing Boundaries conference. Professor Andrew Crane shares his top five takeaways about what we’ve learned so far about what is going wrong.

Although academic researchers have been examining various aspects of modern slavery for decades, it is only in recent years that the business dynamics of modern slavery have begun to receive serious attention. For whatever reason, business school researchers, in particular, have been slow to address the issue. That, though, is clearly changing.

A few weeks ago, we brought together more than 70 researchers of business and modern slavery along with a number of leading-edge practitioners to find out what we have learned so far about what is going on in the field. After three days of intensive discussions with this diverse group of experts, here are my five top takeaways about what the main problems are.


  1. Modern slavery is not hidden

The idea that modern slavery is hidden has been repeated so often that we tend to simply take it as a given. However, as our keynote speaker Genevieve LeBaron so persuasively demonstrated, this is rarely, if ever, true. Sure, modern slavery is illegal. And illegal acts tend to get covered up. But such is the nature of modern business and supply chains that the workers actually being subjected to modern slavery are usually in full view – and more often than not, subject to social audits that have been specifically designed to uncover poor working conditions.

The problem is less that modern slavery is hidden and more that few companies are really trying to find it. Journalists and activists seem to have few problems rooting out extreme forms of exploitation, while academic researchers and consulting firms increasingly have the models to predict where modern slavery is most likely to arise.


  1. Common approaches to tackle modern slavery are not working.

In case anyone was still in any doubt, the research evidence is abundantly clear: legislation based on promoting transparency in supply chains has very little, if any, effect on the incidence of modern slavery. Researchers have found that this approach has prompted companies to be hypocritical, abdicate their responsibility, and avoid any substantive action to tackle modern slavery.

Likewise, researchers have shown that social auditing – the main way that companies voluntarily try to detect and address modern slavery – routinely fails. Even social auditors themselves are typically exposed to exploitative working conditions. Research has identified more than 20 different types of tools that companies are using to tackle modern slavery, but by far the most popular are those – like social audit – that either enable firms to evade responsibility or push it onto their suppliers.


  1. Focusing on ‘rogue’ employers and criminals is not helpful

In analysing parliamentary debates, media articles and even modern slavery statements, researchers have demonstrated that companies are almost never identified as the perpetrators of modern slavery. The problem is usefully presented as one of ‘criminals’, ‘organised crime’, and ‘traffickers’ exploiting people for profit, with companies merely being innocent bystanders. Even when they are identified as part of the problem, they are usually presented as ‘rogue’ employers, rather than normal businesses.

The upshot of this is that the role of mainstream business in causing or benefiting from exploitation gets sidelined, and proposed solutions ignore the systemic problems that are driving the problem in the first place. Research shows that modern slavery is not usually accidental or exceptional, but is a consequence of exploitative business models taking advantage of deep-rooted vulnerability and inequality. Criminal justice approaches will have limited effect on what one team of researchers labelled “despotic labour control”.


  1. Meaningful engagement by companies is lacking

Researchers consistently have found that although companies and their managers seem to mean well in addressing modern slavery, they lack the kind of in-depth, long term, meaningful engagement and change that is necessary.

One team of researchers, for example, pointed to the widespread problem of ‘pilot washing’. This is where companies repeatedly set up pilot projects to tackle some aspect of modern slavery, but never follow through in developing more substantial programmes that fundamentally alter the company’s approach. Another team’s analysis revealed that despite many companies making commitments to combat modern slavery, there has been a lack of substantive action.

Even worse is the finding that some actions that look like legitimate attempts to protect workers, such as human rights policies, appear to have the opposite effect. That is, some researchers have found that firms use corporate human rights policy mechanisms to dispute and delay human rights claims, as well as to force employees – especially women – to deny the abuses that they have experienced.


  1. Public procurement is not realising its potential

Finally, because the purchasing power of the public sector is so great, public procurement represents an important potential avenue for tackling modern slavery in supply chains. However, the research to date suggests that this potential remains largely unrealised, mainly because of the challenging sociopolitical context in which public procurement takes place, the impact of crises like covid-19, and lack of resources and expertise.

Nonetheless, researchers have identified some cause for optimism for the role of public procurement in addressing modern slavery, particularly when it involves arrangements that can change the focus and logics of purchasing, such as purchasing consortia seeking to advance the modern slavery agenda and multi-stakeholder initiatives that prioritise rights-holders.


All told then, the picture presented by academic research is one of considerable challenges in how modern slavery in business is tackled. In my next post I will look at what researchers are suggesting may be promising ways forward.

Posted in: Conferences, CSR, Human rights, Modern slavery

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