Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

How companies talk about modern slavery

Large companies in the UK are required by law to state what they’re doing about modern slavery. The way they talk about it reveals a lot about how they understand the issue.

Ilse A. Ras Christiana Gregoriou
10 February 2021
Illustration by Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. Creative Commons (by-nc)

Under section 54 of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015, corporations doing business in the UK that have an annual turnover greater than £36m are obliged to publish a statement accessible from their homepage, that is signed by a director or equivalent, on the steps that they have taken – if any! – to “ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in any of its supply chains, and in any part of its own business”.

We've been looking at some of the metaphors that large, multi-channel retailers in the UK have used in these statements. Very basically, metaphors apply what we know about a familiar topic to a more complex or less familiar topic. As such, the metaphors used to describe or explain a certain concept give us unique insight into how this concept is understood.

We examined statements published by Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Mothercare in 2016, 2017 and 2018. These companies have all actively contributed to efforts in Britain against what the UK government terms 'modern slavery', beyond just publishing those statements. As such, these companies may, to some extent, be considered role models.

A disease in need of a cure

One set of metaphors comes from the domain of medicine or hygiene. These describe modern slavery as a substance, located in the conduit that is the supply chain, that is as spreading or growing. This suggests that modern slavery is understood as something like a stain or a virus. Marks and Spencer, for instance, writes that no company is “immune” or “untainted”, and that there's a need for a “diagnosis”. The implication of such a sustained metaphor is the need for an aggressive, treatment-like response. Preventative measures, such as ensuring that people are less vulnerable to exploitation in the first place, are of later concern, once the stain or virus is under control, or even removed. Indeed, the most mentioned response is one of “eradicating” the “issue”.

Related responses also draw from the domain of violence, with words such as “combating”, “tackling” and “targeting” the issue. We find such metaphors of violence problematic, as they justify physically violent responses, such as police raids, which often further traumatise and harm those already exploited.

Mainstream discourse on modern slavery remains one in which the powerful talk to each other about what to do with the precarious.

In that regard, what is also problematic is that people working for these companies' suppliers are linguistically dehumanised. They are spoken about as objects without agency, people who just happen to be in that conduit of the supply chain where the stain or virus of modern slavery is located. The danger of seeing workers in this way is that a company may simply decide to excise this part of the supply chain rather than seek to improve conditions for these workers. Removing such suppliers from the supply chain isn’t necessarily better for them, as it takes from these workers however little security their precarious and exploitative position offers.

Nameless agents, nameless actors

Who is awarded agency in these statements raises its own questions. Who is doing the surveying and the cracking down? In these reports, this is done by the corporations rather than any specific individual working for them. This grammatical construction, in which the legal person of the company is the agent, acting upon external parties and objects, is an example of personification. This is not especially unusual in corporate reporting, and it is unlikely to contain any malicious intent. It has implications though. Responsibility gets diluted when actions are attributed to the company rather than to particular individuals, as the individuals actually taking the decision to work with or divest from a particular supplier are exempted from, externally at least, having to account for these decisions. This is a problem with most reporting on corporate responsibility, whether the issue is one of labour rights or environmental protection.

This dilution of responsibility also makes it harder for punishment to be meted out when the company (and not the individual who took that decision) is found to have been acting contrary to the law. Companies cannot be jailed, and all too many consider fines as part of the cost of doing business. Politically, too, such punishments may be difficult. Too large a fine may threaten the existence of that company, which in turn can threaten local jobs and even, as in the case of large high street retailers, part of the national identity. There would be fewer such concerns if the individual would, and even could, be held liable.

Finally, by positioning these companies as actors and the staff of suppliers as acted upon, again the voices of workers go unheard. This is not specifically a problem with corporate reporting on modern slavery and human trafficking, but a more pervasive issue throughout the mainstream discourse on slavery and trafficking. Mainstream discourse on modern slavery remains one in which the powerful talk to each other about what to do with the precarious.

As the statements of Marks and Spencer, John Lewis and Mothercare may be taken as examples of good practice, these companies in particular have a responsibility to be aware not just of what they're doing, but also how they're talking about what they're doing, and the effects of both.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 13.

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