Forced labour in supply chains is usually not an anomalous crime perpetrated by shadowy criminals. Rather, it is a stable and predictable feature of common business models and commercial dynamics associated with contemporary supply chains.
Business models configured around forced labour have been documented in a range of sectors and are especially common in those that are labour intensive — and where labour costs comprise a high proportion of costs — and characterised by high levels of subcontracting and intermediaries. They often arise in portions of supply chains that focus on low-value added activities.
As corporations at the helm of supply chains source goods, their sourcing practices and contracts agreed with suppliers can easily hardwire demand for illegal labour practices into supply chains. Academic research has highlighted that forced labour is a logical consequence of common sourcing practices of brands and retail chains, which include: sourcing beneath the costs of production and demanding goods and inputs for less than production cost; late payments to suppliers; high pressure on ship dates and speed to market; heavy financial penalties for delays; refusal to adjust prices in light of improvements to minimum wages; unpredictable ordering patterns; allowing workers to bear recruitment costs; and paying very low wages. Sourcing practices and contracts agreed with suppliers can easily hardwire demand for illegal
labour practices into supply chains.
Fortunately, there are potential solutions. Corporations can innovate their business models to prevent forced labour in supply chains, such as by benchmarking living and minimum wage costs in purchase orders and contracts and ensuring that their own commercial practices do not undermine labour standards, policies, and commitments. Binding and enforceable agreements with worker organizations and unions can create valuable, long-term commercial momentum towards eradicating forced labour across sectors and ensuring that suppliers are paid enough to cover the costs of compliance with labour standards. Forced labour should be given greater prominence in commercial contracts and broader corporate governance reforms can ensure that the social dimensions of purchasing agreements are robustly upheld.
These innovations are unlikely to take place voluntarily, and need to be spurred on by governments. Governments should outlaw commercial practices like below-cost selling and sourcing, which perpetually and predictably lead to forced labour in supply chains. Additionally, the regulation of the production, trade, and financial dimensions of the global economic system should be reformed and strengthened to prohibit forced labour and introduce economic incentives for goods produced through decent work.
Forced labour has long been presented as a hidden crime that surfaces unpredictably in supply chains. In such narratives, shadowy criminals driven by moral failings or greed to amass “immense profits” infiltrate otherwise pristine and harmonious supply chains to introduce forced labour.1 In this view, it is individual perpetrators rather than businesses, management systems, or supply chain dynamics — and the government policies and consumer practices that enable them — that give rise to forced labour. This common understanding also enables lead firms at the top of supply chains to present themselves as separate from criminal actors and activities whose illegal behaviour they are unaware of and do not condone. But these depictions are highly misleading, and skew attention away from the real problem: that forced labour seems to be present almost everywhere in supply chains because it continues to be a normal and important aspect of business practice.2
As a wide and growing body of research demonstrates, forced labour does not occur randomly within supply chains.3 Nor does it tend to be linked to organized criminal networks. Rather, forced labour is a stable and predictable feature of common business models and commercial dynamics associated with contemporary supply chains.4 Forced labour is used within business models configured to maximise profits by evading legal minimums and continually reducing operating costs, and in asset leveraging models wherein exploited workers are overcharged for necessities like accommodation or transportation, among other costs.5 Forced labour business models do not arise in a vacuum but are shaped by global economic structures that encourage “the relentless pursuit of low cost manufacturing to maximize profits and the pressures on suppliers to deliver their products as cheaply as possible.”6 Forced labour business models have been documented in a range of sectors and are especially common in those that are labour intensive — and where labour costs comprise a high proportion of costs — and characterised by high levels of subcontracting and intermediaries. They often arise in portions of supply chains that focus on low value-added activities.7
There should be no doubt those who hold others in forced labour are committing a crime. Yet more often than not, these criminals are not shadowy characters at the fringes of supply chains, but are rather the otherwise legitimate enterprises that comprise modern day capitalism’s core.8 As business scholar Andrew Crane puts it, modern slavery is a contemporary “management practice” in which enterprises “attempt to underprice a key resource (labor) through illegitimate means.”9 And in another business scholar Steve New’s words, it is “an endemic feature of the socio-economic systems which is in part constituted by firms themselves.”10
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