Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 178: Forced Labour, Modern Slavery and the Global Supply Chain — Genevieve LeBaron

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Genevieve LeBaron

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Paige Smith   0:04
Hello listeners! I’m Paige Smith with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

On this episode of Below the Radar, our host, Am Johal, talks with Genevieve LeBaron, the new Professor and Director of the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University and the Principle Investigator of the ReStructure Lab. Today, Am and Genevieve discuss forced labour, its market incentives, and the effects of COVID on the global supply chain, as well as her new role in SFU’s School of Public Policy. We hope that you enjoy the episode.

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Am Johal  0:44 
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar, delighted that you could join us again this week. We're really excited to have Genevieve LeBaron with us today. Welcome, Genevieve.

Genevieve LeBaron  0:54 
Thank you, Am. It's great to be here.

Am Johal  0:56
Yeah, Genevieve, maybe we can start with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Genevieve LeBaron  1:00 
Sure, I'd be happy to. My name is Genevieve LeBaron, as you said. I'm a Professor of Political Science by training. And I've recently joined Simon Fraser University as the Director of the School of Public Policy in the Vancouver campus and Professor of Public Policy. I'm also the principal investigator of a lab called ReStructure Lab, which is shared between SFU, Yale, Stanford universities and the University of Michigan School of Law.

Am Johal  1:32
Genevieve, really excited. I know, we've had a chance to speak before but really exciting that you're coming back to Vancouver, a city that you grew up in to work here at the School of Public Policy as the director. I'm wondering if we can begin with you just talking about your own research focus, an area you've been studying on business governance of forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking and global supply chains. And so, I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to how you found yourself studying in this area in particular, and kind of the threads of your research currently.

Genevieve LeBaron  2:08
Sure, absolutely. Thanks for the warm welcome back. It's great to be home in Vancouver. Great to be back at SFU. Yes, so my research is focused on forced labor, human trafficking and slavery and global supply chains, as you said, How did I get into it? It's a funny story. Well, as funny as you know, it can be I guess, looking at a subject like this.

Genevieve LeBaron  2:30 
I started out researching this as an undergraduate at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. And I didn't mean to really, I was doing political economy for my degree, looking broadly at questions around globalization, and how we got where we are now and kind of the global economy terms. And there was, at the time, a pretty major issue in the state, kind of in the areas surrounding where our college was based. And that was that there was a trend of companies closing down production facilities and relocating inside of prisons. And of course, prison labor under the US Constitution is a form of of slavery. There's a loophole in the 13th amendment that allows slavery where people have been convicted of crimes. And so prison labour is this form of unfree or forced labour within the US.

Genevieve LeBaron  3:25
And so that was the first thing that I looked at. And it was really, because it was a major issue in the society in which I was living, from many different perspectives, from the perspective of labour unions, who were concerned that, you know, unionized jobs were getting cut, and that that work was being relocated into prisons. It was interesting to me, you know, why was the government doing this? Like, why were they giving their prison labour force to large companies, and it was a sort of strategy to offer an alternative to offshoring that would keep some production located within the state. So that was very interesting to me. And then also, the ways in which companies at the time were claiming that this was part of their sort of social responsibility and rehabilitation mission to employ prison labourers. 

Genevieve LeBaron  4:15 
And so that was my first interest in this area. I then went on to do my masters and my PhD at York University in Toronto. And there I was confronted with the reality that, you know, I sort of thought that this was a key part of capitalism, this was a key part of how the economy was functioning, clearly, because it was, you know, right next to my college as I was doing my undergraduate studies. And when I got to York, I was surprised to realize that for much of the field of political science and political economy more broadly, there's a theory that capitalism has no use for forms of forced labour, that, you know, the kind of economy that we live in today, these forms of forced labour and forms of slavery will slowly fade away, as, you know, the capitalist market comes in and proliferates, and carries with it a preference for free wage labour. And that goes back to classic political economists like Adam Smith, and others. And I was surprised and worried about how prevalent that view was within the department where I was studying, but also sort of the literature more broadly, that there was this argument that people cared deeply about, that forced labour and capitalism were, you know, incompatible in some way. And to me, that seemed factually incorrect. And it seemed theoretically very dangerous, because of course, what it does is it cuts out the labour of the most sort of racialized, dispossessed people in the economy who have little choice but to engage in certain forms, a very dangerous and underpaid, often exploitative and sometimes forced forms of labour.

Genevieve LeBaron  6:01 
And so for me, it was a really problematic sort of way of looking at that problem and the global economy. And of trying to create a sort of vision and theory of capitalism that was highly sanitized, and just factually wrong. And so I became interested in it that way. I started to do large studies of forced labour and global supply chains after I did my PhD, where I looked at prison labour, the history of prison labour and US capitalism, why different companies used it with what consequences for prisoners and for local economies and labor markets more broadly. And then I turned, in my postdoc at UBC, to looking more globally at global supply chains and some of the dynamics there. And I can say more about my current work on that if, you know, where I've gotten since the postdoc if that's useful, but in a nutshell, that's how it all began.

Am Johal  6:57 
Yeah, it's fascinating. And yeah, I wonder if you could speak to some of the studies that you were involved in, because it's it's complex, and it's global, and obviously has localized effects, as well, but in terms of the methods and approach that you take in your in your research, that would be fascinating to hear about.

Genevieve LeBaron  7:16 
Sure. So I've tried to take an approach that centres workers, and enables workers to really narrate and explain their own conditions and their own experiences of labour and supply chains. So, the first study that I did was a study of tea and cocoa supply chains focused on the business of forced labour. So there, I was interested, you know, there's a lot of interest in the big brand companies at the top of supply chains when it comes to labour standards. But there's much less understanding of the businesses that actually use forced labour. And I was interested in trying to understand the patterns around those businesses. So, are they businesses of a certain size? Are they businesses that are producing primarily for export or domestic consumption? How do things like Fairtrade certification or Rainforest Alliance certification shape whether or not a business has a kind of a demand for forced labour?

Genevieve LeBaron  8:15 
And my interest there was in you know, whether forced labour is really a hidden crime. We hear that a lot in the media, we hear that a lot in in kind of policy circles and my hunch, based on some previous research I've done with my colleague, Andrew Crane and Laya Behbahani and others, was that actually it would be possible to pinpoint which types of businesses use forced labour and why. And so, I set out to study this and I did it by doing a comparative analysis of cocoa and tea supply chains and the nature and prevalence of forced labour within different types of businesses at the base of those chains. I did so by starting out at the base of the supply chain. Our team interviewed about 1,200 workers and did a survey that looked at everything from wages to why workers were unable to leave those situations or if they wish to, you know, how they might do that, that sort of thing. And we then worked our way up the supply chain, interviewing domestic business actors, interviewing big global corporate business actors, interviewing policy makers of different varieties, ethical certification firms, and others, to arrive at an understanding of how forced labour manifested in these chains and the business dynamics that surround it.

Genevieve LeBaron  9:35 
And we found some interesting things, for instance, that when it came to ethical certification, whether or not a tea plantation had ethical certification made no difference in the prevalence and severity of forced labour that was found on those work sites, which, of course, is deeply troubling given that we, you know, we buy these products expecting that they're made without forced labour, without child labour, and with higher labour standards. So that was the first large study that I did.

Genevieve LeBaron  10:04
I've done a few other studies since then. I've worked with colleagues in the business school, Vivek Soundararajan, and Andrew Crane, Laura Spence, Michael Bloomfield, and others to do a study of South India, garment industry and garment workers, garment supply chains. Most recently, in the pandemic, I worked with colleagues to do a study that looked at the impact of COVID 19 pandemic, on patterns of forced labour in four countries, looking at the garment supply chain again, and really to see how the different business responses to the COVID 19 pandemic impacted upon the patterns of forced labour that we see in those supply chains. And in that one, we also interviewed, I think, about 1,200 workers. Again, and both kinds of long form more ethnographic style of interviews, as well as quantitative surveys. And so that's the general approach that I take in my research. It's worker led, it involves interviewing workers away from businesses, with ethics and the, you know, the severe consequences that workers could face for participating in research like this, really front of mind and the kind of key consideration being ensuring that we we do no harm and the research process and then also work with labour organizations in terms of dealing with some of the problems that arise as and when workers would like to see that that redressed.

Am Johal  11:27
Yeah, so I'd imagine in terms of the implications of your research, it would have huge policy implications, national and regional government levels, but also international, and probably also companies themselves, that may be contractually distant from it, and also the kind of jurisdictional opportunism that companies take in exploiting workers in this type of way. I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to how at both national and international levels, what the policy implications have been related to the research that you're doing? Or you're seeing the policy gaps that perhaps exist at these levels that are being exploited by various actors?

Genevieve LeBaron  12:10 
Yeah, absolutely. As you say, a major part of my work has been policy focused. It's obviously a topic that there's very little data on. And so when there is data, and there's a huge amount of public and policy interest, and having evidence based policy around this topic, is something that I've really tried to prioritize. It's fraught terrain, given the politics that surround it. And it's an interesting journey to have worked with large companies to try to address and support them in redesigning their business models to prevent and address forced labour, as well as you know, everyone from the UK Parliament to US Congress and others to really strengthen the approaches they take to these problems.

Genevieve LeBaron  15:55 
The kind of the nutshell of it, I think, is that the current dominant approaches to dealing with forced labour in supply chains across most jurisdictions failed to take seriously the commercial dynamics that actually lead to business pressure to use those practices. So, we see a real emphasis in, for instance, what's called home state regulation, which has been passed by the EU, the UK, the US State of California and others, and that type of legislation tries to place new responsibilities onto companies that are headquartered in those jurisdictions to strengthen how they deal with forced labour and supply chains. And what we've seen in response to that is that companies say, "Oh, we're auditing. We're certifying. We're doing, you know, these sort of philanthropic initiatives to try to employ, for instance, people who've been liberated from forced labour." And those may be well intentioned, there are really good people working within companies who are trying to put those solutions forward. But the unfortunate reality is that when we look at the data, there's just almost no data to suggest that they actually work in terms of reducing forced labour on the ground. And the reason for that, I think, that my research points to, is that those types of solutions do absolutely nothing to confront the business models that perpetually and consistently lead to forced labour.

Genevieve LeBaron  14:24
So that thing I was talking about earlier, where we can see patterns in terms of the types of firms that have demand for forced labour, how they use it in supply chains, why they use it in supply chains, and a lot of the time that has to do with price pressures that are placed on them further up the chain. It has to do with the large companies constantly trying to source goods, well below the cost of production, to the point that it hard wires in the kind of inability to meet minimum labour standards and labour law. And so those commercial dynamics have not been tackled in policy, and they're definitely not tackled in more corporate social responsibility type responses to these problems.

Am Johal  15:06 
You've also been involved with something called the ReStructure Lab. I'm wondering if you can speak about that a little bit.

Genevieve LeBaron  15:12 
Absolutely. So at the outset of the pandemic, my friends and colleagues, Jessie Brunner at Stanford, and Luis DeBaca, at Yale, who, you know, Luis had been President Obama's ambassador for human trafficking and modern slavery. And Jessie's an expert on forced labour, human trafficking and supply chains and kind of the international policy context and landscape there, the three of us have been researching these things. And indeed, practicing around these problems and trying to bolster policy for many years.

Genevieve LeBaron  15:46 
We got together and we were chatting, and we were all feeling that, you know, there was heavy demand at that, at that moment, at that kind of outside of the pandemic moment when it was already clear that this was going to be a new era for global supply chains. That overnight, you know, the kind of iron clad norms of doing business that had been entrenched through the globalization era, were just being broken overnight. So, all of a sudden, you know, staple food products, which we've always been told have inelastic demand, prices can't rise to deal with, you know, for instance, raising labour standards, suddenly prices were rising. Supply chain fragility was laid bare as we suddenly had mass disruptions to global transport. The nature of work was changing as flexible policies were emerging around working from home, factories were being shut down. Everything was changing.

Genevieve LeBaron  16:41
And I think it was interesting that that kind of vaulted the topic of supply chains into the policy spotlight in a way that hadn't happened in the past, driven mostly by fears around the stability of supply, like, could we get the masks we needed for the pandemic? Could we get the PPE equipment we needed? If not, why not? Like what were the bottlenecks in the supply chains, etc, as well as geopolitical concerns. But all of a sudden, you know, there was this effort to, to regulate and and govern supply chains in a much more hands on way than we'd seen in the past, for instance, governments who were doing these company bailouts of industry during the pandemic, were putting strings attached that related to environmental and social dynamics and supply chains. And so federal bailout funding was being dependent upon certain environmental issues or, you know, banning tax havens or they were trying to kind of drive progressive policy and deal with these long standing issues and supply chains by putting strings attached to the money they were giving companies.

Genevieve LeBaron  17:44 
And we felt then that this was a moment, kind of a once in a lifetime moment, where there was definitely going to be change in supply chains and in labour standards, and it could either move the needle towards solutions that were more positive for workers. And that dealt with some of these long standing challenges, or it could be very, very regressive. And so we were facing a lot of demand for, you know, what should we do next from kind of policy makers, companies, worker organizations, how should we seize this moment? How can we use it to deal with these long standing issues around forced labour? And so we decided to form this lab to really just collaborate and to try to lay out what we knew as researchers, and what data was available within academic research, to answer some of these pressing questions.

Genevieve LeBaron  18:33 
And so our lab is a joint research policy lab that brings practitioners together. And it brings academics together who have done large studies of forced labour in supply chains, along with students from the various universities. And we collaborate to try to lay out what solutions to these problems look like using that research and evidence base. So we've written a series of six briefs over the pandemic that lay out, for instance, how commercial dynamics and sourcings need to change, how investment patterns need to change how value should be redistributed within supply chains, just really taking the research we've done, and that's available in the field and then trying to translate it into accessible solutions that people can take up. And we've been excited to see a lot of interest in that work.

Am Johal  19:26 
I found in looking at some of the policy briefs, Genevieve, I really appreciated the plain language that they're written as someone who's worked in government before seeing documents on the policy front and taking in, and clearly it came out of rigorous research. And so it's amazing how easily and digestible in a digestible way that can be circulated. So, it can have a kind of interface with policy actors.

Am Johal  19:51 
I'm wondering in terms of the present trends that you're seeing out of the research related to forced labour? What are some of the things that you're finding today? And secondly, the trends you're seeing in terms of actors who are engaging in forced labour, where are the policy gaps they're functioning in?

Genevieve LeBaron  20:10
Sure, thanks, Am. I mean, that's kind of you to say about the work. And that was definitely the hope that it would be useful to non academics, especially. What have we seen, so I think we're seeing both signs of excellent progress. And we're also seeing some really worrying signs. The good news first would be that we are seeing the conversation in policy circles, for instance, in the US move towards looking at commercial drivers and commercial dynamics. And that's really the first time you know, as somebody who's been working on these topics for close to 15 years now, it's the first time we're seeing, I think, a national government, aside from Brazil, which used to have an amazing program on kind of the commercial business dynamics of forced labour, take a take a stance on this and look seriously at what types of policy instruments can help to address that and incentivize better business practice. And so we're seeing, for instance, trade law and trade mechanisms be used in a way that they have not in the past. We're seeing import bans of goods that are made with forced labour, so that they, you know, just can't be sold in the market anymore. And the idea behind these is to price, you know, sort of price forced labour out of the market by making it expensive and commercially not viable to produce products in that way. So, I think that it's complicated. There are some perverse effects of that. For instance, what we have seen the US has ramped up its bans of forced labour made goods, we have actually seen an increase in the number of forced labour made goods that come to Canada, because those boats end up coming into our market, and selling goods here, where we do not have, you know, some of those bans in place, though I know we are working on it. And so, you know, it's an interesting trend. I think it's hopeful that there's a recognition that commercial dynamics need to be confronted, but we're at the the early stage of experimenting with policy that can do that. And there's a lot of refinement that needs to be done.

Genevieve LeBaron  22:16 
I think on the worrying side, you know, the numbers that do exist, including the study that I mentioned that I did with colleagues of the garment industry show that there is a surge in forced labour happening through the pandemic. And also, we know that there are numbers, for instance, from the United Nations that child labour is surging through the pandemic, and that this is reversing, you know, many years of progress on these issues. So, yeah, I suppose it's a complicated picture and COVID has meant, you know, a huge loss of livelihood for a lot of people, a lot of suppliers going under. And so, we are seeing that, you know, there has been just a huge transformation in supply chains that's leaving workers worse off in many parts of the world and in many sectors.

Genevieve LeBaron  23:03 
I think you asked about the businesses that use forced labour, what are some of the trends there? Again, the trend is that, at the outset of the pandemic, you know, there was this huge flux in supply chains, a lot of large businesses panicked, and they sort of canceled orders and slashed and burned their supply chains. And they found it harder than they expected, I think, to rekindle those relationships and go back to how things were. And then we're also seeing, you know, large geopolitical transformation in supply chains at the moment, where companies are trying to get out of certain jurisdictions and into others in response to new regulation. And that is leaving, you know, some suppliers very much worse off. And so, you know, the picture is, again, not a particularly rosy one, for suppliers in the garment industry or in other industries.

Am Johal  23:57 
So, you have a very, very busy research area of interest that you're continuing on, and you have your second hat as Director of the School of Public Policy, which has brought you back to your hometown of Vancouver. And you've had the opportunity to study abroad, places like Evergreen and in the UK, and I'm wondering if you can give us a little bit of a preview into, you know, your sense of arrival back into the city. And at this really unique School of Public Policy, where do you see the school going in the future, in terms of its unique history, here inside of SFU? And also, you know, being based in Vancouver, how can the school be situated in a unique context in terms of what it offers for public policy, graduate students, and also the broader impact it can have in terms of its research area?

Genevieve LeBaron  24:48 
That's a great, great question, Am. I mean, you know, I'm only a few weeks into my job. So, no pressure, but I'll share a few initial thoughts. I suppose, you know, the thing that drew me back here, as you say, I've been fortunate to spend, you know, some years in the UK where I had these amazing research grants, and some time at Yale, and some time in Geneva, and in Paris, and sort of all over all over the place. And what drew me back to SFU, I actually worked here, during my postdoc, I taught in the Labour Studies Department. And I loved the students that I work with, I'm still in touch with many of them. It's been an amazing part of my career to support them and follow them as they've developed their work. And I found them to be some of the most hardworking students who offered, you know, they combined kind of rigorous excellent academic skills with lived experience of various forms of diversity, that gave them really unique insights into questions around public policy, labour markets, what solutions we should have to pressing social and economic problems.

Genevieve LeBaron  26:00 
And the thing that excited me most about Public Policy School is that it has one foot in, you know, rigorous, amazing academic research. We've got economists here, we've got public health scholars, we've got political scientists. They’re working together to research and truly understand problems that range from drugs, to housing, to climate change, to solutions to those problems, you know, really the full gamut of public policy challenges that are local to Vancouver, national to Canada and global. And at the same time, they're, you know, placing a lot of emphasis and value on communicating the findings of their research in ways that support policy change and actual real-world solutions to the problems that they're researching. And I think that's too unique of a thing, in some ways, in academia, it's not often that you have that and it's not often that you have it at a place like SFU, where you truly have this kind of university wide commitment to engagement, and university wide commitment to knowledge mobilization and impact. And so, for me that is what was so attractive about the school and what makes it so unique.

Genevieve LeBaron  27:20 
I think we're at a moment in time where public policy is seeing a resurgence, where a lot of people are saying, whether it's because of climate change, or because of the pandemic, or because they're just fed up with not being able to afford the basic necessities of life, like housing, or food, or transportation, or whatever it is, we're seeing, you know, these increasingly loud demands for governments to get more involved in regulating the economy, and in shaping the rules of the game in which labour and business and migration and many other processes and dynamics occur. And so, I think we're at a moment in time where, you know, we really need people who are well trained in public policy analysis, and who can act in the public interest, and meet this growing demand for innovative solutions to economic and social problems within the City of Vancouver, within Canada, within the world. And that's what our school does, it, you know, trains people, both on the rigorous academic side and on the public and policy communication side, to be able to act in the public interest. And so, for me, I saw this as a home where I had like minded scholars who are also interested in both research and impact. And also, you know, this amazing group of students who come in already with amazing experience in the real world and in policy, and want to spend a couple of years studying with us to learn how to be even more effective and even more impactful in the issues that matter most to them. And so, I'm really honored to be back and I'm looking forward to working with, you know, yourself and all the folks at SFU, who really make SFU stand out as a university in this area.

Am Johal  29:21 
Well, as Genevieve, we're so lucky to have you here in Vancouver and SFU. And I know it's going to be an amazing opportunity to work with students. I've met many of the public policy students before and they do an amazing job and are continuing to do amazing policy work at governments, with governments and non-profit organizations around the country. I'm wondering if there's anything you'd like to add?

Genevieve LeBaron  29:48 
No, just that  I'm happy to hear that I agree with you. Our students are fantastic. And it's an important time in BC and in the world for public policy. I think we're seeing this trend of people who've been traditionally excluded from public policy making, taking a big seat at the table and driving things forward. And that's something that we're looking to support and to be able to really contribute to from our school.

Am Johal  30:23 
Genevieve, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Genevieve LeBaron  30:28
It's been my pleasure, Am. Thank you for having me.

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Paige Smith 30:33
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to our conversation with Genevieve LeBaron! Head to the show notes to learn more about the resources mentioned in the show. We release episodes every Tuesday, so make sure to subscribe to Below the Radar on your podcasting app of choice to make sure you never miss an episode. Thanks again for tuning in and we’ll catch you next time on Below the Radar!

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
June 28, 2022

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