Clothes, Chocolate and Children: Realising the Transparency Dividend

How does the new political economy of transparency enhance the well-being of workers and children in the developing world?
Project status

This project examined, through a comparative research design, the effects of new requirements introduced under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 on businesses operating in the UK. It focused on two sectors: cocoa and garments, where there are well-known issues around exploitation and child labour, and four countries: Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Ghana and Myanmar. The aim was to find out how transparency requirements connect with the reality of working conditions in source countries, particularly the effects on children in the workplace, and workers' families in the two sectors.

In the garment sector in Myanmar and Bangladesh the research team found a work environment characterised by exploitation, abuse and lack of responsible engagement by buyers. This was within a context of a failure on the part of local stakeholders to implement labour laws and hostility towards worker organising, for example through trade unions. The research revealed that, without addressing these two factors, problematic working conditions cannot be resolved in a sustainable, long-term way. The team concluded that the UK government has a pivotal role to play in focusing overseas development work on supporting efforts to ensure the coverage and enforcement of labour law. In Ghana and the Dominican Republic, the research identified key misconceptions in how ‘child labour’ was framed and understood. The project findings suggested that efforts to prevent child labour and the exploitation of child workers must be centred on the rights of the child, including the voices and views of children.

The project concluded that there was little cause for optimism in terms of the capacity of the new transparency requirements to deliver on their aims. Increased transparency may help in shining a spotlight on poor working practices, but the scope of that enlightenment is limited and highly uneven. Of particular concern are the unforeseen consequences of this, other legislation, and related corporate social responsibility agendas, which may displace problematic working practices for children, and push exploitation and modern slavery further down the supply chain into less regulated markets. Future research needs to concentrate on these darker areas, where it is likely that children's and workers' rights are further reduced and the risks of exploitation are high.

Principal Investigator: Dr Alex Balch, University of Liverpool

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