May 5, 2015, by ICCSR

Some thoughts on Business and Modern Slavery

The Global Slavery Index estimates close to 30 million people are enslaved around the world today. Yes, enslaved. And yes, today. Far more than raising the odd eyebrow, the abhorrent phenomenon that is ‘slavery’ –popularly thought to be consigned to the darker annals of history- has precipitated something of a collective moral panic in the guise of ‘Modern Slavery’. Understandably, who would not strongly object to the use of force, violence and deception to the involuntary appropriation of labour for profit? As such, sharp concern about this emergent issue extends well beyond the typically concerned parties such as human rights NGOs and the left media but has occupied the broad based media, Western governments, corporations and industry bodies. The two questions provoked by this crisis how can we eradicate Modern Slavery? And who should play a central role in this? In response, powerful global institutions such as Governments, Corporations and industry bodies are being urged to take a lead role. But what kind of role?

Whilst (‘Historic’) Slavery is illegal, at present, little exists in terms of legislation for Modern Slavery. In California, the Transparency in Supply Chains Act is a notable exception, urging greater transparency in the way that businesses report about their supply chains. In the UK, the Modern Slavery Bill, currently in a second round of consultation, is moving gradually (it seems) towards similar requirements upon corporations for greater transparency throughout their global supply chains. Whilst the abhorrent issue of Modern Slavery has rallied key actors in the international community to enforce such institutional mechanisms aimed at the eradication of Modern Slavery, much ambiguity exists around the issue itself in terms of what exactly it is, who is involved and where it occurs. Delineating the dimensions of this complexity might be a useful first step to understanding the possibilities, constraints as well as misconceptions surrounding attempts to address Modern Slavery.

Whilst few would dispute the scale of the figures offered for those currently enslaved, or disagree that action is required, there appears to be a lack of consensus around what it is and who it involves and where. The breadth of potential victims ranges from children, and men and women in forced or ‘bonded labour’ as well as immigrants. Similarly varied is the question of where these victims are from, both in terms of citizenry, industry or geo-spatial region. Recent newspaper reports highlight that Modern Slaves can be found both amongst foreign nationals as well as domestic citizens. Lost, hidden between these spaces are vulnerable immigrants whose exploitation may happen at source, destination and/or in transit between. Many victims seem to be located out of sight, carefully hidden in illegal industries selling drugs and sex. Aside these more manifestly extreme spaces, Modern Slavery has been associated with specific regions of the world, such as India, where inherited debt or ‘bonded labour’ has framed intergenerational labour relations. This brief caricature of the complexities of Modern Slavery, ignores the important dimension of the degree of exploitation. The fact that Modern Slavery might involve varied extents of exploitation only adds to the complexity of this emergent issue.

In a period that has witnessed increasing liberalization of labour markets (e.g. zero contract hours) the concerted effort to rally together against Modern Slavery is notable in itself. Modern Slavery has clearly touched a deep, moral nerve and galvanised a board community of relevant actors. Understandably in the throes of a moral panic of this nature, urgency, decisiveness and clarity of purpose are desirable attributes that we might look for in our most powerful institutions. I wonder though if, given the complexities presented, there is a tension between the speed and effectiveness of ameliorating mechanism. If institutions move quickly without fully appreciating, or indeed accepting, the various dimensions of Modern Slavery, are the solutions that become embedded going to be sufficiently capacious? Moreover, where certain practices associated with Modern Slavery become subject to legislative consensus, where does this leave other objectionable forms of exploitation that don’t fall under this label? Only time will tell whether Modern Slavery will become sufficiently understood so as to be widely eradicated or, as with ‘Historical Slavery’, we end up with a partial antidote for only the most extreme variants of human exploitation. A useful discussion for corporations, governments, NGOs and the media would be about the definition of Modern Slavery itself, what equivalent or connected practices it may involve and whom it implicates.

Useful Links


(Crane, 2013; LeBaron, 2014; Quirk, 2011)

Crane A. (2013) Modern slavery as a management practice: Exploring the conditions and capabilities for human exploitation. ACADEMY OF MANAGEMENT REVIEW 38: 49-69.

LeBaron G. (2014) Reconceptualizing debt bondage: Debt as a class-based form of labor discipline. Critical Sociology: 0896920513512695.

Quirk J. (2011) The anti-slavery project: From the slave trade to human trafficking: University of Pennsylvania Press.


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