Our SPERI Spotlight series showcases the work of a researcher at SPERI to give an insight into their research. This month we speak to Hannah Boles about their research on labour conditions in global supply chains.
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on ways to combat labour exploitation in supply chains. I’m particularly interested in examining both what companies in different tiers of the supply chain can do to improve labour conditions and worker’s experiences of exploitation and what they would like to see improved.
I recently researched what retailers, seafood brands, and Thai seafood suppliers are doing to tackle forced labour within seafood supply chains. My report is available here. As part of this research, I conducted surveys, focus groups, and interviews with migrant workers in the Thai seafood industry; both with land based workers in the processing factories and workers involved in marine capture fisheries. Prior to my work on Thai seafood, my research focused on the tea and cocoa sectors in India and West Africa, examining corporate responses to exploitative labour practices within their supply chains. My current project returns to the tea industry to examine the future of work and how the structural and business constraints that enable exploitation will need to change in order to advance decent work on Indian tea estates.
What led to you becoming interested in these issues?
I first became interested in these issues as a teenager when I was horrified to learn about the prevalence of child labour in the cocoa industry. I visited my local shops and retailers to advocate for them to source fairly traded cocoa products. Later, I began to research the certification programmes and in-house CSR initiatives used by corporations to verify that their products comply with social and environmental standards. My work has examined the extent to which these programmes actually deliver improvements for workers. I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on how corporate strategies might be further improved by moving beyond verifying compliance to embed responsible sourcing practices within the business model to try to prevent forced labour and to promote decent work.
What are the challenges involved in researching these areas?
The main challenge relates to access, as workers in situations of forced labour can be hard to reach; in the seafood industry, for example, fishers can be out at sea for months on end. There are also challenges around ensuring the protection and safety of anyone who does speak to me.
What workers report and what companies report are often very different – one of the challenges for me as a researcher is how to draw causal links. It is difficult to assess whether specific forms of corporate activity are directly affecting labour conditions on a particular work site; particularly in complex supply chains with several tiers of production and limited public transparency related to sourcing practices.
What are the key future research questions?
I think that there should be much more attention focused on domestic trade and forced labour within domestic supply chains. The growth of South-South trade in recent years further underlines the case for looking at how local and regional markets of production are co-ordinated and governed. I think that the growth of these domestic markets means there should be more emphasis placed on legal instruments and regulations to address systemic issues of labour exploitation within supply chains.