Hierarchy of Legislated Corporate Social Responsibility, Supply Chains and Assumptions in Mandatory Modern Slavery Disclosure

Dr Onyeka Osuji, Reader in Law at the University of Essex, recently presented his research on mandatory modern slavery disclosure at two international conferences.

Disclosure is an emergent regulatory strategy for corporate social responsibility (CSR) in certain jurisdictions despite its original conception as a voluntary management tool. As exemplified by recent anti-modern slavery legislations in some jurisdiction, disclosure is growing in significance and reach. In extending social responsibility to global supply chains, disclosure regulation implicitly references ideas of gatekeeper responsibility and glocalisation and overcomes the extraterritorial limitations of substantive regulation.

Anti-modern slavery legislations by California in 2010, the UK in 2015 and Australia in 2018 reflect the regulation by information approach based on a universal revenue threshold. The goal of the regulatory strategy appears to be two-fold. On the one hand, disclosure requirements may promote the awareness of modern slavery and encourage businesses to eliminate or reduce its existence in their operations, supply and purchasing chains. On the other hand, information generated through reporting requirements will be used by stakeholders like consumers and investors factor in purchasing and investment decisions. This market-based approach indirectly relies on stakeholder pressure to compel businesses to address modern slavery.

This research examines the underlying assumptions for disclosure-oriented modern slavery legislations. These assumptions include leverage and political CSR, adequacy of a revenue threshold test for the capacity to confront modern slavery in operations, supply and purchasing chains, business case justifications for CSR, and an activist and vibrant stakeholder group of investors, consumers and civil society.

The paper demonstrates the various limitations of the disclosure regulatory strategy of the modern slavery legislations and argues that it is at the lowest end of a hierarchy of effective legislated CSR. Alternative thresholds, including sector-based and regional approaches, may reflect the degree of risk and need for awareness and therefore approximate to the contextual understanding of CSR and its priorities. The reliance on the market-based reputation and stakeholder information regulation excludes direct positive and negative incentives for compliance. It may encourage symbolic statements of corporate policies and processes rather than substantive compliance and quality reporting of steps undertaken to reduce risks. The lack of provisions for monitoring, verification and enforcement and for responsibility, liability and accountability creates the potential for a “promise-performance gap” exemplified by deceptive and misleading statements.

This research was presented at the 18th International Conference on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and 9th Organisational Governance Conference ‘CSR: Public and Private Perspectives’, Barcelos, Portugal (10-13 September 2019) and at the one-day conference ‘Critical Perspectives on “Modern Slavery”: Law, Policy and Society’, organised by the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull (30 October 2019).

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