People of SFU

Fighting against forced labour through influencing public policy

May 29, 2023

After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at UBC focused on forced labour in supply chains and its business dynamics Genevieve LeBaron, who today is a professor and director in the School of Public Policy at SFU, took up the Vice Chancellor’s Fellowship at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom (UK) just when the UK government was developing The Modern Slavery Act 2015.

That’s when LeBaron also started her knowledge mobilization (KM) journey by being at the right place, at the right time, with the right expertise.

As LeBaron describes it, “I was summoned before parliament. It was intimidating as I had no serious training in speaking to policy actors or in communicating to that sort of audience”. Despite the nerves she brought forth her expertise and research into these spaces. The voices of workers involved in her research compelled her with their hopes that companies and markets would be changed by her research.

With a sense of ethical obligation, she continued to explore opportunities for policy relevant knowledge mobilization. This included structured engagements such as participation in a UN sustainable development goal 8 initiative and a UK parliament advisory group. As well as less formal engagements such as invited talks, research and impact partnerships, and dialogues with banks and businesses.

Over the last decade LeBaron has made contributions to how the forced labour problem is articulated and explored, both in policy and in research. Moving policy away from approaching forced labour as an individualized problem toward seeing it as a systemic problem requiring individualized solutions. In research, the shift is toward looking at how (global) systems and structures make forced labour happen rather than looking at causes of specific situations.

She is quick to point out that any changes in this space is due to a collective push. LeBaron works closely with many organizations, researchers, journalists, workers, students, and policy makers to address forced labour. For example, collaborating with a journalist on a joint study of forced labour amidst the Covid-19 pandemic produced a series of journalistic articles along with a report, summary for government and brands, and a summary for workers translated in their primary languages.

Another point that LeBaron makes is that the UK academic system, with the focus on impact (as exemplified by the addition of impacts cases in 2014 to the Research Excellence Framework assessment process) incentivizes researchers to build real world impact from research. Knowledge mobilization is supported through funding for impact research assistants and post-doctoral fellows, providing release time, and recognizing impact as part of tenure reviews.

Now LeBaron is at SFU leading the School of Public Policy as she continues to nurture and work with her large network of collaborators and partners to carry on the transformative work started in the UK. She co-leads the Restructure Lab which “seeks to rebuild supply chains amidst the pandemic to promote equitable labour standards, worker rights, and abolish forced labour.”

Interested in doing more with what you know? Get in touch with Lupin Battersby for a consultation.