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Combatting Modern Slavery Through Business Leadership at the Bottom of the Supply Chain

This project analyses innovative initiatives aimed at tackling modern slavery among local businesses in the garment industry in Tamil Nadu (India).

Multinational companies’ attempts to combat modern slavery in global supply chains have so far been largely unsuccessful. The main approach used by large western businesses 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.

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 re-think may be necessary.

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.

This research project will seek to identify innovative solutions from local actors and evaluate different points of leverage for effective action against modern slavery. The 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. More specifically, the team aims to:

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

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

3) Evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives in combatting exploitation.

Ultimately, the 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.

Principal Investigator: Professor Andrew Crane, University of Bath

Co-Investigators: Dr Michael Bloomfield, University of Bath; Professor Genevieve LeBaron, University of Sheffield; Dr Vivek Soundararajan, University of Birmingham; Laura Jane Spence, Royal Holloway, University of London

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