Trafficking and Supply Chains: Risk and Responsibility

Trafficking and Supply Chains: Risk and Responsibility

6th September 2016

Dr Siobhan McGrath

University of Durham

As the OSCE convenes an important meeting on human trafficking in supply chains, one word keeps echoing in my brain: risk.

In recent years, those concerned with the issues of trafficking, forced labour and slavery (TFLS)[1] have begun to focus on supply chains as a new arena of action; simultaneously, the Corporate Social Responsibility world has become increasingly alert to the issues of TFLS. We refer to this as the TFLS-supply chain nexus. As part of the DemandAT project, my colleague Fabiola Mieres and I have been conducting research on the range of initiatives that have been developed at this nexus. Such initiatives include laws, programs, policies, and campaigns undertaken at a number of different scales and through a variety of mechanisms. Our research seeks to document this variety, and whether the initiatives exhibit any common features. 

In the course of this research, Dr. Mieres and I had been noting the emergence of a prominent message: namely, that trafficking, forced labour and slavery constitute a supply chain risk. We had discussed how the requirements under legislation such as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and the UK Modern Slavery Act seemed to be reinforcing and amplifying this message. Then, earlier this year, Dr. Mieres forwarded me an email with the subject line ‘Are You At Risk?’ The email advertised a webinar run by Source Intelligence. In one of their previous webinars, a speaker from Know the Chain highlighted Verite’s research documenting the prevalence of forced labour in Malaysia’s electronics industry. He then stated, ‘Any company that was unaware of this issue, that might be contracting with firms based in Malaysia, should be aware that this issue could potentially be impacting their brand or their business.’

The issue was framed in a similar way by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2012: “Trafficking in persons has emerged as a key challenge and risk in a wide range of industries and sectors integrated into global markets, such as agriculture, information and communication technology, garments and textiles.” Comparable language is used by other policymakers and legislators, by advocates, by journalists, and (perhaps especially) by other consultancies and trainers. 

The message is aimed at pushing companies to take TFLS seriously not only for moral or ethical reasons, but also because of how their bottom line might be affected. Those delivering the message are pointing out the risks that firms face, ranging from reputational damage to outright liability. I would not dispute this point. However, it is crucial to consider what might be lost, obscured or downplayed by the focus on the risks that TFLS pose to businesses.

First, there is a danger in substituting ‘risk’ where we once spoke of ‘responsibility.’ The language of risk implies that the causes are elsewhere. Perhaps they include: the incapacity or unwillingness of foreign governments to protect workers’ rights; the vulnerability created by poverty, inequality and discrimination; unscrupulous traffickers, gangmasters, moneylenders, and smugglers who take advantage of these vulnerable individuals; so on and so forth. In short, the risk of trafficking emerges in an external environment which just happens to serve as a sourcing region for companies. By implication, the risk does not emerge from the dynamics of the supply chain itself. Rather, the supply chain is vulnerable to being contaminated by the phenomena. A 2014 article from the Wall Street Journal framed it this way, stating that, ‘few things are worse for a company or an industry than to be associated with human trafficking or slave labor.’

My concern here is that the language of risk detracts from the question of whether companies have contributed to the problem, or indeed are continuing to contribute to the problem. Rather than only considering external causes, sourcing decisions and practices should be examined. These include the length and complexity of supply chains, the concessions often deemed necessary to lure investment, and the simultaneous pressures put on suppliers around delivery time, fluctuations in orders, quality, and price (and even monitoring and reporting).

Related to this is a concern that TFLS are (again) being isolated from wider issues of labour rights and labour conditions. Whether and to what extent TFLS are treated in isolation has been debated in other issue areas, particularly around migration. But this is now playing out in relation to supply chains. But it is rare to hear about TFLS in supply chains where decent work is the norm. When alarm bells are raised about TFLS, this is usually a signal that there are wider and deeper problems regarding labour relations and working conditions in the supply chain.

Finally, treating the issue as one of risk also implies particular solutions. Reducing risk is very different than addressing fundamental problems. One proposed solution to the risk associated with trafficking in prawn fishing, for example, is offered by a company which plans to produce synthetic prawns – thus removing the fishing workers from the equation. While we may dismiss this example as a quirk, it is worth remembering the pitched battles that have been fought over allegations of sweatshops and the question of whether to respond by pulling out of the region or remedying the situation. For example, Johns and Vural (2000) analysed what occurred when Disney was under attack for dismal labor conditions of 14 subcontractors in Haiti in 1997. The largest subcontractor announced it was pulling out of Haiti, due to ‘slump in demand’ as a result of criticism by human rights and labor groups. The closing was predicted to leave 2300 workers jobless. Activists had explicitly advocated that Disney and its subcontractors remain in Haiti, but Johns and Vural concluded that ‘plant closings and job loss … may be an unintended result of campaigns.’ Other campaigns have been more successful in engaging companies to improve the situation rather than cutting and running. And similar debates have of course played out in relation to child labour where firms have initially sought to exit the area and/or terminate relationships with subcontractors rather than ensure the children in question are provided adequate alternatives.

Thus I would argue that there is a downside to the discourse of ‘risk’ and it is one we need to be aware of. We need to insist on keeping the well-being and livelihoods of workers at the centre of our efforts. We need to acknowledge that sourcing decisions and sourcing practices may contribute to labour violations and poor working conditions, and thus are relevant in discussions of the ‘risks’ posed by TFLS. I suspect some find it uncontroversial to say that TFLS needs to be addressed within a wider context of labour rights and working conditions. Perhaps it is even uncontroversial to say that sourcing decisions and practices may contribute to the problem. However, a reminder of these points is vital at the moment because of the way that the issue is being framed as a risk for companies. When we talk about extreme labour rights violations and extremely poor working conditions, we need to be clear about who is facing the greatest risks:it is workers, not corporations.


The views expressed in the blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of the DemandAT Consortium as a whole


[1] The terms have important distinctions but are often used interchangeably.