This is a research summary of the report: Fashion Supply Chains, Modern Slavery and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts, Empathy and Resilience, a Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC) research project, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. The research was conducted by Dr Mark Sumner, University of Leeds; Professor Divya Singhal, Goa Institute of Management, India; Dr Matthew Davis, University of Leeds; Professor Hinrich Voss, HEC Montreal, Canada.
The study followed a five-step methodology to gather data and to conduct analysis to understand the impact of Covid-19 on the management of modern slavery. The methodology and analysis was underpinned by baseline pre-Covid-19 data gathered in 2017/19 across Indian fashion supply chains. The research returned to the same interviewees in the same Indian supply chains in 2020/21, and conducted additional interviews with other suppliers and stakeholders, to assess how the pandemic had changed modern slavery risks within the supply chain.
This project was funded through an open call for proposals to examine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on modern slavery.
- The impact of Covid-19 on brands and their suppliers was felt strongly across all tiers of supply chains in the sector. However, it was not evenly felt across all tiers and affected different parts of supply chains at different times. Unpredictable demand was suspected of contributing to increased likelihood of unauthorised subcontracting, with its associated risks of unethical practices.
- Where brands and their suppliers had stronger existing relationships, there was a sense of both experiencing common challenges during the pandemic, along with a degree of empathy that in many cases had not existed before. This improved brand-supplier relationships.
- Brands with an established commitment to ethical trading experienced a higher level of resilience, partly through stronger supplier relationships, that was beneficial to both brands and their suppliers, and ultimately workers.
- Those brands who felt they positively engaged with the transparency in supply chains provisions in the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, and their responsibilities towards their suppliers, tended to understand the impacts of the pandemic better, and were therefore better able to mitigate those impacts.
- Businesses should resource dedicated ethical trading teams and view them as an investment to reduce risk and increase resilience, rather than a function that is expendable when costs need to be cut.
- Businesses should integrate ethical trading teams into commercial decision-making structures. Businesses should consider the implications of buying decisions on suppliers and workers – integrating ethical trading teams would help them ensure that during crises supplier intelligence is shared and alternative solutions are considered (for example, negotiating delays to orders rather than cancelling them).
- Capitalise on new technologies to strengthen worker voice to complement audit practices. The pandemic spurred innovation in how to connect with workers while traditional in-person audits were difficult to carry out. There are encouraging reports that the use of new technologies improves connections with workers, but more work is needed to understand the extent to which these approaches can replace face-to face activities.
- Collaborate with other stakeholders and build upon the common understanding that the shared Covid-19 disruption has produced.
For the UK Government:
- Mandate engagement with Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act. The consensus among participants was that lack of engagement with section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act is strongly related to the lack of significant enforcement of the Act. Stronger enforcement is needed. However, care should be taken to avoid incentivising a tick-box approach to compliance, which could lead to simplified modern slavery statements, reducing their potential information value.
- Consider introduction of a Garment Adjudicator. There was support from brands and the wider industry for the calls made by the Environmental Audit Committee for a Garment Adjudicator (GA), similar to the Groceries Code Adjudicator. The GA would be able to regulate the industry and develop a level playing field for brands, which would help enforce the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act. It could also allow for a centralisation of the auditing process, reducing the number of audits that suppliers must conduct for various brands and retailers.
For other Governments:
- International labour laws. Governments should uphold labour laws that provide the framework for brands and suppliers across the global fashion value chain. With the highly globalised nature of the fashion industry, closer collaboration between governments under the leadership of the ILO and with support from the OECD is vital to supporting productive business relationships and protecting the human rights of workers.