Brent Burmester

Brent is a lecturer in the Department of Management and International Business. His current research centres on multinationals as international political actors. An important component of this research stream is to expose the persistence of modern slavery in multinational business enterprises.

How international business research can help to eradicate modern slavery

Slavery? Wasn’t this heinous practice abolished with the gaining of independence in African states, and as a result of civil war in America more than 150 years ago? Sadly, no. Although its character and locations have changed, slavery is a very real problem in the modern world. Certainly, people can no longer be owned by another person, but they can be (and are) trapped in exploitative situations from which they have no escape. From the manufacture of our smartphones and our designer jeans to the production of the food we eat, millions of workers endure long hours for little and sometimes no pay, as well as living conditions we in the developed world would consider intolerable.

Multinational enterprises (MNEs) are often contributors to the persistence of modern slavery. Once they have reached a certain scale, these vastly powerful organisations tend to reconstrue their role in society, manipulating policy to suit themselves and divorcing themselves from responsibility for the public good.

Added to the regulatory challenges they pose to governments is an insufficient oversight of supply chains. This could be seen as a deliberate strategy, because of course it is greatly to an MNE’s disadvantage to be publicly associated with the abuse of human rights. But if a supplier who is once or twice removed in China or Uzbekistan is using slave labour to manufacture a MNE’s products, it is relatively easy to keep this hidden from sight: “Not our business”.

Brent and his colleagues Snejina Michailova and Christina Stringer have recently published a paper whose purpose is to show that these sorts of governance inadequacies will be lessened if international business scholars draw attention to MNEs’ governing role within and beyond global value chains. Instead of the traditional focus on management structure in MNEs, the focus could instead be on how their labour forces are impacted by the decisions of senior executive teams, for example.

This paper represents an attempt to mobilise the international business academy to help eliminate slavery from workplaces that rely on MNE patronage or where labour rights abuses are made possible by MNE diversion of governance resources. It places particular emphasis on the use and abuse of MNEs’ governance capabilities in the sphere of international relations. While the power of MNEs in the market is clear, they also play an underestimated role in shaping rules and their enforcement at different levels of governance: international, regional, national, and sub-national. Of special concern is their ability to shape the agenda of international cooperation on global issues. In this regard they consistently divert attention from the inadequacy of labour rights and their own role in the violation of those rights.  


Burmester, B., Michailova, S. and Stringer, C. (2019), "Modern slavery and international business scholarship: the governance nexus", critical perspectives on international business, Vol. 15 No. 2/3, pp. 139-157.