OPINION: Business schools should stop ignoring modern slavery

by Andrew Crane | @ethicscrane | University of Bath
Wednesday, 24 June 2020 11:22 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Job seekers stand outside a construction site ahead of the release of the unemployement numbers by Statistics South Africa, in Eikenhof, south of Johannesburg, South Africa, June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Slavery is a multi-billion business - it's time for researchers to start paying more attention to it

Andrew Crane is a professor of business and society at the University of Bath, Robert Caruana is a professor of business ethics at the University of Nottingham, Stefan Gold is a professor of sustainability management at the University of Kassel, and Genevieve LeBaron is a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield.

The United Nations’ labour agency (ILO) estimates that modern slavery is a $150bn a year business. From activists to large corporations, organizations across the world are turning their attention to understanding and stopping it. Everyone, that is, except for business schools.

Given that there are something like 13,000 business schools in the world, there are likely more business professors than there are professors in any other discipline in the social sciences or humanities. Many of them not only teach but also conduct research on a wide variety of business-related topics. We recently conducted a review of this research to see what business scholars had to say on the subject of modern slavery.

Our conclusion is that after more than 20 years since the 1999 publication of Kevin Bales’ Disposable People kickstarted public and policy attention to the topic of modern slavery, most business school professors still seem to be largely oblivious to the issue, at least insofar as their own research is considered.

Given that we know modern slavery affects many different parts of business, from supply chains through to marketing, we investigated a number of different sub-disciplines of business to see what aspects of modern slavery were being researched and published in the field. Surprisingly we came up with very few publications that specifically examined the business of modern slavery written by business school scholars or published in business journals. And, of those that have been published, still fewer are actually based on empirical data about the real world. So, amongst all the tens of thousands of articles published every year by business school scholars, barely even a handful address the topic of modern slavery. To all intents and purposes, we concluded, modern slavery is a “non-field” in business school research.

A similar picture seems to be evident in the classroom. While we know of several business school professors here and there who bring examples of modern slavery into the classroom and ensure their students engage seriously with the issue, these appear to be the exceptions rather than the rule. 

Perhaps just as surprising is that beyond the business school, academic research on the business of modern slavery is flourishing. Our review of the literature only investigated three fields outside of business – law, history and political science – but in each we found a wealth of studies that examined aspects of modern slavery that spoke directly to issues of business and management. This included legal analysis of the effectiveness of regulations on ensuring companies tackle modern slavery in their supply chains, political analysis of the root causes of modern slavery in business, and historical analysis of the effectiveness of consumer boycotts on prompting action to tackle slavery.

What this means is that important research on the business of modern slavery is certainly happening and has indeed been underway for decades. It just isn’t – except for some notable exceptions – taking place where you might most expect to find it.

One might conclude that this lack of research from business professors on modern slavery isn’t really a problem if other disciplines are filling the void. But this would overlook two very important factors.

First, business research is important because it addresses aspects of modern slavery that simply can’t or won’t be addressed by scholars in other disciplines. Researchers in business are experts at understanding company strategies, how decisions are made, how they manage their supply chains, and how they interact with customers and employees.  Other disciplines tend to view businesses as either black boxes or as largely homogenous entities. We need rigorous business research to discover how best to influence different companies to tackle modern slavery effectively.

Second, the lack of high quality research and teaching on modern slavery in business schools signals to students, other researchers, and business people that modern slavery is not important in business and does not deserve our attention. This is likely to produce a community of scholars oblivious to one of the key challenges facing contemporary business and a generation of business managers no better informed about the issue than their predecessors.

The solution, however, is not for business school professors to jump blindly onto the bandwagon and start doing research on modern slavery simply because there is barely any relevant research in their discipline. There is a very real danger of them simply ignoring the important insights that have already been generated from other disciplines. This could result in them producing sub-standard work that may be new to their colleagues in business but either reproduces what we already know or flies in the face of existing knowledge based on years of dedicated research.

Business scholars have been slow to get started but have a great opportunity now to take stock of where we are and add some critical business insights to our understanding of why modern slavery happens and what we can do to tackle it. It is a chance that should not be wasted.

Themes