Pulling a Thread: Unravelling the Trail of Modern Slavery in the Fashion and Textile Industry

This project aims to identify the barriers to addressing modern slavery in the global clothing value chain.
Project status

Using the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 as a reference point, this project set out to (i) identify the barriers to addressing modern slavery in the global clothing value chain; (ii) understand the motives of suppliers for having forced labour; and (iii) suggest solutions for industry and policy makers. The research focused on Indian (Tamil Nadu) and Vietnamese supply chains as they are important source countries for UK firms. These two countries are also home to small, fragmented and non-integrated businesses, making the identification, monitoring and addressing of modern slavery challenging.

The project revealed that there was little incentive for UK and overseas businesses above the Modern Slavery Act threshold (>£36m), as well as for companies in overseas supply networks, to engage with the Act. It also found that a large number of firms were not filing any modern slavery statements, which did not level the playing field for companies. The research also uncovered that knowledge about the UK Modern Slavery Act among Indian suppliers is very limited. Although these suppliers are addressing exploitative labour practices through audits, they do so on the basis of long-standing industry practices and not as a result of the requirements of UK legislation. Also, while the Act has been a helpful tool to engage suppliers in the UK, it seems to have had little bearing on business practices overseas, especially in remote locations.

The research has suggested that the UK Modern Slavery Act should clearly stipulate the scope of ‘supply chains’ covered by it. Stakeholders within the same sector can have widely differing perspectives on the length of a ‘supply chain’. Common reporting standards for transparency should also be established. Such standards would not only help annual modern slavery statements to play their intended role in line with the spirit of the Act but would also assist the mapping and understanding of supplier networks beyond the first tier (where most of the labour exploitation occurs). Furthermore, the research team concluded that more effective interactions between hard and soft laws was needed. Enforcement of the Modern Slavery Act should build on the existing understanding among brands and their suppliers of long-standing industry initiatives (such as the Ethical Trading Initiative).

Principal Investigator: Dr Hinrich Voss, University of Leeds

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