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University of Bath

Combatting modern slavery through business leadership at the bottom of the supply chain

Mapping the actors, understanding the issues and evaluating the effectiveness of initiatives in combatting exploitation at the bottom of the supply chain.

Challenging an ineffective approach

The success of multinational corporation’s (MNCs) efforts to combat modern slavery in global supply chains (GSCs) has been limited. Social auditing, the main tool used by MNCs to address working conditions, is largely seen as ineffective in tackling modern slavery.

A key stumbling block is the lack of transparency and traceability of informal, unregulated, and often covert business activities at the bottom of the supply chain. Therefore, a potentially more effective way of tackling modern slavery is to unravel the complexities and incentivise changes at the local level. However, understanding the role of businesses at the bottom of the GSC in modern slavery is largely neglected.

Exploring methods for effective action against slavery

This project will be the first to explore business relationships in the sub-tiers of GSCs, identifying points of leverage for effective action against modern slavery. The focus is a large-scale case study of the garment industry in Tamil Nadu, India, a major export region for textiles and clothing destined for UK high streets.

Forced and bonded labour, sexual abuse, and other forms of exploitation are common in these sub-tiers in Tamil Nadu. MNCs find it difficult to monitor and regulate these practices, as they often involve unauthorised sub-contracting and home-based work. While previous studies have focused on relations between lead firms and Tier 1 suppliers, we focus on the dense and messy networks at the bottom of GSCs, where modern slavery thrives.

Aims of our research

The project has three aims:

  • to systematically map the business actors and relationships in the sub-tiers of the garment supply chain in South India
  • to determine the drivers and barriers for local firms to engage in proactive initiatives addressing modern slavery
  • to evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives in combatting exploitation, and the conditions under which they can be scaled

Our goal is to identify specific private and public governance solutions and to share these with policymakers, businesses, and the public.

Pilot fieldwork in Tamil Nadu

Our pilot fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, which took place in 2017, indicated that local business actors, including factory owners, labour market intermediaries, and training institutes, have begun addressing these problems. For example, local labour market agents are introducing ‘responsible recruitment’ initiatives. Entrepreneurs are experimenting with relocating manufacturing sites closer to the labour supply, reducing the effect of unscrupulous intermediaries.

These types of initiatives have emerged at some nodes of the supply chain within Tamil Nadu, but not others. They have also proven to be successful in addressing some forms of exploitation, but not others.

Publicising our findings

Our multi-disciplinary team will enable credible and quality contributions at key influential conferences, ILO's Regulating Decent Work, International Studies Association Convention and the Academy of Management annual meeting.

From these we will develop publications to maximum academic impact, featuring in International Labour Review, Academy of Management Journal and Journal of World Development.

Accessing thousands of future managers, we will include findings in the 5th edition of the leading text for business students, Business Ethics.

We will build on previous engagement with Department for International Development (DFID) and HMG modern slavery team on forced labour and the shadow economy. Collaboration with our Advisory Group enables co-creation of the study throughout, and particularly in benchmarking approaches to tackling modern slavery, the toolkit for UK and Indian business, and policy briefings. We will use Reuters India, The Conversation, and quality blogs for wide, accessible communication of our work.

We will work closely with our Advisory Group to maximise dissemination and impact.

Workshops for policy makers and businesses


We will co-host two workshops, including one with Tirupur Exporters Association, for policy makers and business.


We will co-host a workshop with the highly reputed Institute of Business Ethics in central London for business and policymakers. This will actively inform our findings to the UK Parliament via the Commons Library, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and BEIS and International Development Select Committees.

Project team