Role of business in tackling modern slavery in supply chains


What academic literature is there around how business can tackle modern slavery and child labour in supply chains? What evidence is there for the role of business in this regard?


Key findings:

  • Not much research has been done on business supply chain management and modern slavery: The available literature is extremely limited.
  • Pressures on companies to tackle modern slavery in supply chains are increasing: These include growing consumer concerns about the issue, fears of reputational damage, the potential for companies to charge more for ‘slave free’ ethical products, and increasing government regulation.
  • It is not easy to identify modern slavery in supply chains: The complexity of these chains, the different forms of modern slavery, its often transient nature, and active efforts by those involved to conceal it, make it hard to detect.
  • Companies can have vested interests in not tackling it and can even fuel it: Companies benefit hugely from cost savings through use of modern slavery so could be unwilling to tackle it. More worrying, the power asymmetry between large multinationals at the top of the supply chain and lower tier suppliers could create the conditions that lead to use of modern slavery by the latter. Based on this analysis, modern slavery is not an aberration but a normal part of the system.
  • Once detected, responding to modern slavery in supply chains is challenging for firms: The literature is clear that withdrawing from a region/country would make the situation worse. Companies can adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to address modern slavery, but working with a diverse range of unfamiliar actors, each with their own priorities and perspectives, could be difficult. A second option is working at community level to improve local conditions, and a third is engaging with suppliers and supporting their development so they produce goods without using slave labour.
  • Focus in initiatives to date is on identification rather than on tackling modern slavery: California’s 2010 Transparency in Supply Chain Act and the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act are examples of legislation to promote supply chain transparency. However, these only require firms to report on efforts to tackle slavery and do not mandate action to curb it. The International Cocoa Initiative in West Africa takes a multi-stakeholder approach to curbing modern slavery in cocoa production, while IKEA is an example of a retailer promoting supplier development.
  • The bulk of initiatives to date have come from government rather than business.


Suggested citation

Idris, I. (2017). Role of business in tackling modern slavery in supply chains. K4D Helpdesk Research Report series. Brighton, UK: Institute of Development Studies.