The Global Slavery Index (2018) estimated that the G20 countries collectively source $354bn of products per year that are at risk of having forced labour in their supply chains, with the UK representing £14bn. Modern slavery captures a range of violations that exploit people for the purposes of work or services. Legislation in the UK, USA (California), France, Australia, and Singapore, targets only large firms and focuses largely on reporting. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act (2015) requires commercial firms with a turnover of £36m or over to publish a Transparency in Supply Chain (TISC) statement on their website’s homepage, annually.
Professor Jo Meehan and Dr Bruce Pinnington are leading a programme of research working with government agencies, organisations, and NGOs, to explore how supply chains are responding to TISC legislation. A post-doctoral researcher (from June 2022) and two PhD students, Nathan Davies and Oliver Kennedy (funded through an ERSC CASE award), complete the team.
Modern slavery in supply chains is a relatively new area of academic study. Jo and Bruce are working with the UK Government’s Crown Commercial Service (CCS), who bring together policy, advice, and procurement services for UK central government and over 18,000 organisations in the wider public sector. The first research project looked at what government’s suppliers were saying they did to guard against modern slavery, but, more importantly, what they were not saying. The research, published in the International Journal of Operations and Production Management, reveals how the use of strategic ambiguity in modern slavery statements can reduce firms’ accountability and delay action on addressing modern slavery in corporate supply chains.
The second project with the Home Office’s Modern Slavery Unit and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) undertook a detailed assessment of the content of firms’ modern slavery statements. The study, now published in the Journal of Business Ethics, concluded that policy ambitions for improved transparency are compromised by cost-related information discovery issues, rather than risk-related disclosure strategies. Policy initiatives and public procurement practice need to motivate firms to admit their knowledge limitations and make timed commitments to close these gaps before transparency ideals can be realised.
In a third project, funded and published by the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre (MSPEC), a survey was conducted of nearly 500 procurement and supply chain practitioners which revealed that even during the pandemic, when supply disruption was a prevalent issue, modern slavery awareness and priority remained high, but is still dominated by commercial imperatives.
Funding from Research England and the Heseltine Institute for Public Policy, Practice and Place, has supported a project exploring the potential for regional policy to support national legislation and industry-focused collaboration in eradicating modern slavery in supply chains.
Jo and Bruce’s research won the International Federation of Purchasing and Supply Management Award for the Best Paper with Strong Managerial Implications, at the annual IPSERA academic conference in 2019, and the team are working hard to use their research evidence to drive change in public policy, public procurement, and companies’ commercial practices. The team’s work has already been quoted in the modern slavery statements published by the UK Government, CCS, United Utilities, Wilmott Dixon, Balfour Beatty plc, and Vivienne Westwood, all of whom are now looking to change their practices to improve how they identify and tackle modern slavery in their supply chains.
The evidence from the research feeds into regular programme and policy reviews with CCS, the Home Office’s Modern Slavery Unit, and the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre, as these partners develop policy, look to improve their own supply chain performance, and set guidance standards for policy changes. The Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply are official partners on Jo and Bruce’s latest research projects to help disseminate the findings through their membership of 200,000 professional buyers across the world, to engage a wider debate on how modern slavery can be tackled in parallel with other commercial pressures.
Bruce and Jo have established links with a wide network of academics in the field, as well as with business, government and non-government organisations and the team are conducting further research and impact projects at local, national and international levels. A collaboration recently established with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, for instance, will involve shared data collection in the UK and Australia through which the effectiveness of the two legislative regimes can be contrasted.
Dr Bruce Pinnington and Dr Jo Meehan
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