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OPINION: It’s time to stop believing corporate fairytales about modern slavery

by Genevieve LeBaron | University of Sheffield
Thursday, 30 July 2020 11:45 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Fast food workers gather outside the corporate offices of Carl Karcher Enterprise as they protest against the possible confirmation of company CEO Andy Puzder as U.S. labor secretary in Anaheim, California, U.S. February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is badly failing to detect, address, and prevent forced labour in the global economy

Genevieve LeBaron is a Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield

Corporations love to tell fairytales about their efforts to eradicate modern slavery. On panels at the World Economic Forum, rock music festivals, and in glossy corporate social responsibility (CSR) brochures, they tell us about their codes of conduct that can prevent debt bondage in faraway lands and the heroic social auditors they hire to tame unruly factories. They regale us with stories about the criminal perpetrators of human trafficking and slavery  contaminating otherwise pristine supply chains, and how their multi-stakeholder initiatives and working groups and partnerships with anti-slavery organizations can swoop in to save the day.

These stories are seductive. Corporations are rich and powerful and they make the stuff that we buy and love. We want so badly to believe they can be ethical. We want to believe that although corporations once had a reputation for being evil profit-extracting monsters, ravaging the earth to deplete natural resources, exploit workers, and evade regulation, they have changed.  We want to believe the happy and compelling stories they tell about bringing decent work and living wages to workers across the global economy are true.

But the evidence suggests they are not. As I argue in my new book Combatting Modern Slavery published today – on World Day against Trafficking in Persons - academic research including my own suggests that CSR is badly failing to detect, address, and prevent forced labour in the global economy.  Study after study has found that tools like social auditing and ethical certification are profoundly flawed and ineffective when it comes to the worst forms of labour exploitation. Investigations measuring whether and to what extent CSR commitments—such as to living wages, ending gender-based violence, or promoting human rights—continuously find little evidence that standards are being realised on the ground. Research reveals corporate fairytales for what they are: enthralling stories that are very unlikely to be true.

While fairytales about modern slavery do little for vulnerable workers, they are helping auditing firms and consultants to rake in vast profits. As corporations have increasingly relied on a private enforcement industry to ‘monitor’ supply chains, audit and consultancy firms have become a boom stock. Today, large audit firms have close to a hundred thousand employees, bring in billions in annual revenue, and have seen their share prices skyrocket as the market for their services has soared over the last two decades.

Fairytales are also helping corporations to grow. As CSR gives consumers and policymakers confidence that companies are tackling challenges and helps to stave off more stringent forms of regulation, corporations have grown larger than ever.  We live in an era of trillion dollar corporations and ‘superstar’ firms, where a single company can command vast control over the conditions under which goods are made across entire sectors. The sheer size of corporations today not only imposes structural conditions on labour costs, but it also creates new barriers to corporate accountability.

Amidst the covid-19 pandemic characterised by market instability, anaemic demand, and cancelled orders, workers need labour rights, living wages, and decent work more than ever. But CSR is not the hero that can deliver these.  It’s time for us to stop waiting for CSR to save the day.

We need to change the commercial conditions that cause forced labour to manifest and thrive in global supply chains in the first place. I provide an overview of these in my book, and explain how measures like value distribution along supply chains, benchmarking labour costs, and worker-driven social responsibility initiatives can address the root causes of forced labour in supply chains.  Unlike CSR, these solutions require alterations to the status quo business model, where profits are hoarded at the top of supply chains with almost no money going towards the bottom.

And we need to empower workers to put forward their own solutions.  The initiatives in which they have done so – from the Fair Food Program to transnational organizing along supply chains—are amongst the most successful examples we have of contemporary efforts to combat modern slavery.  While they may not have the resources to make glossy brochures on corporate websites, workers are fully capable of developing and implementing solutions to prevent and address labour abuse and promote their rights in supply chains. 

They know better than anyone why and how severe exploitation arises and how it can be eradicated.