Breaking the silence on modern slavery

A woman sits in a large warehouse working a sewing machine.

Denied water, exploited, trafficked, and trapped - pioneering research from 51福利 Management School is documenting the lived experiences of men, women and children trapped in modern slavery in the hope that their work can make a difference.

Despite being hidden behind criminality, making research challenging, a team of academics is breaking new ground and believes this sensitive, high-profile issue demands attention.

From first-hand investigations in textile factories in Asia to collaboration with multi-billion-pound fashion brands, the team is leading efforts in the UK to investigate, remediate, report on and prevent modern slavery.

Underpinning much of their work are the voices of those experiencing or at risk of modern slavery, described as the recruitment or trafficking of men, women, or children using force, coercion, abuse of vulnerability and deception to exploit them.

Slavery in the textiles and fashion industry

A woman working in a textile sweatshop

Their work to better understand the issue has gained them an international reputation with global brands and helped inform UK policy with their research referenced in a new British Standard on modern slavery.

Due to its complex, global supply chains, high-intensity labour and vulnerability to modern slavery, the global textiles and fashion industry is a focus of much of the team’s research.

So, it’s within factories in India, like those exposed by the media in recent years, that you’ll find Divya Jyoti, an early career researcher and lecturer.

"As an ethnographer," Dr Jyoti said, "I spend time immersing myself talking to workers, factory owners and their supply chain about their lived experiences.

"From here, I can see how rules and codes of ethics, designed and often imposed by organisations higher up the supply chain, with an intention of making factories safer and better places to work, look and feel to workers in reality."

Workers aren’t allowed water bottles ‘on the line’ for health and safety reasons and can’t go to the toilet if the factory has visitors, so they control their urges to drink and empty their bladder.

A quote from Dr Divya Jyoti Management School, 51福利

Discovering the truth about modern slavery in the UK and globally

"You often find it's the workers who pay the price for compliance", said Dr Jyoti.

"Take sewing machine needles, for example. If they break, health and safety rules dictate that all the pieces must be found and collected before they can leave their workstation to the needler issue office to get a replacement. It's often difficult to locate tiny fragments on a busy factory floor. If a piece can't be found, all the garments in the lot need to be scanned – all of this leads to a loss of time for which the worker isn't compensated."

Much of Dr Jyoti's work spans the boundary between modern slavery and extreme exploitation, with many victims falling between the two.

She said: "I've come across workers who have paid money to a middleman/agent to get their job and continue to pay. Others who aren't allowed water bottles 'on the line' for health and safety reasons and can't go to the toilet if the factory has any visitors, so they control their urges to drink and empty their bladder."

Dr Jyoti's research has also brought her closer to home, working in factories in Leicester, a city which has been associated in recent years with sweatshops and modern slavery.

She is helping identify the vulnerabilities that put workers at risk of slavery or exploitation – everything from language and cultural barriers to personal circumstances.

"We need to humanise the supply chain and think of workers as individuals, not just statistics," says Dr Jyoti, "if we can speak to them, understand their perspectives, enable them to articulate and put forth their voice, tackle the vulnerabilities and empower them in their work then the risks of modern slavery will be reduced."

Advising businesses on how to tackle slavery in their supply chains

A large warehouse filled with people working at sewing machines

How large organisations identify and report modern slavery has also led to more victims' voices being heard, thanks to research by Professor Mark Stevenson and Professor Linda Hendry and their former PhD student, now a Senior Lecturer at Manchester University, Dr Amy Benstead.

Professor Hendry said: "There's an acceptance by big organisations that they're at risk of modern slavery in their supply chains, but many don't know what to do about it."

Their research saw them work with global brands to share information on the risks in their supply chains and work out an approach to audit and detect modern slavery in their global supply chains before using it in a factory in Thailand.

"We talked to people who'd paid recruitment fees to get their job," said Professor Hendry, "had fees deducted from wages, and had their passports and bank books retained for 'safe keeping' along with other examples that keep people trapped.

"Modern slavery is criminal, and while you can audit and check health and safety practices - like the number of fire extinguishers - how can you audit recruitment practices, for example?

"Often workers have nowhere to go. There's no culture of whistleblowing, no unions, or the freedom to speak about what is happening."

Following the introduction of legislation requiring organisations in the UK with a turnover of ?36m or more to publish an annual modern slavery statement, the team worked with on their very first report.

Pentland - which has brands spanning the high street, sports and luxury fashion, including Berghaus and Lacoste - turned to Professors Stevenson and Hendry, known for their expertise in socially sustainable supply chain management.

Dr Mahmoud Gad and Professor Steven Young's research explored the modern slavery statements of 100 major companies. Despite this now being a legal requirement for companies, 1 in 10 didn't have one.

Detecting and ending slavery

After identifying ways of auditing and detecting modern slavery for Pentland Brands and their supply chain, the team were then able to suggest remediation approaches – providing ways to tackle current and future issues.

This included the introduction of a mobile phone whistleblowing app, stopping recruitment fees and developing updated supplier policies.

Professor Stevenson said: "One organisation can't tackle a problem like modern slavery on its own – the scale of the problem and the complexity of global supply chains is too great. It needs to be a collaborative approach with buyers and suppliers training, learning and working together to share knowledge alongside others, such as NGOs who can support workers and aid effective, informal governance.

"Our work featured brands that would normally compete with one another working together. In collaborating, competitors had to put their commercial agendas aside to improve sustainability and tackle this complex social issue."

Urging organisations to take it seriously and do more

An out-of-focus photo of a corporate boardroom

The failure of organisations to consider modern slavery a mainstream concern has been taken back to the boardroom, and national media has covered the Lancaster team's call for businesses to do more to eradicate slavery.

Dr Mahmoud Gad and Professor Steven Young's research explored the modern slavery statements of 100 major companies. Despite this now being a legal requirement for companies, 1 in 10 didn't have one. Of those that did, only a third were considered straightforward and easy to read.

Professor Young said: "We found reporting policy in modern slavery statements remains largely descriptive and superficial, which is disappointing. There is little attempt to critique performance and highlight areas of concern, which suggests modern slavery remains surprisingly low on management's list of priorities in many companies."

Dr Gad added: "Typically, the largest organisations are the best at reporting and place higher importance on social responsibility. They're doing well financially and want to show they're doing well in social and governance responsibility, but these are few and far between.

"Many just don't see modern slavery as a material mainstream risk, boardrooms don't sign off the reports, and there's a limited and superficial commentary on the issues.

"More needs to be done to understand and mitigate the risks. In addition to the human cost of modern slavery, one media exposé or big investor who pulls the plug for failing to take the issue seriously will have major financial implications."

Meet the team

A photo collage of Steve Young / Mahmoud Gad / Linda Hendry

L-R: Professor Steven Young / Dr Mahmoud Gad / Professor Linda Hendry

All the team members also work as part of the University’s Pentland Centre – a research centre looking at business practices, sustainability and social challenges; led by Professor Jan Bebbington.

51福利 Management School is renowned for its impactful research. It is building on? excellence in the key areas of sustainability,?social justice?and innovation to continue tackling some of society’s toughest problems and positively impact the world.

Find out more about the Management School and The Pentland Centre.