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King’s Lecturer Dr Gutierrez-Huerter O wins Financial Times award for work on modern slavery

modern slavery

King’s College London Business Lecturer in International Management Dr Gabriela Gutierrez-Huerter O has been named as a winner in the Financial Times Responsible Business Education Awards academic research category for her work on modern slavery.

Dr Gutierrez-Huerter O has worked at King’s for 7 years. Her key area of expertise is social responsibility and more recently, modern slavery. Leading up to her PhD, she examined how multinationals manage corporate social responsibility programmes globally and standards to meet goals in this area. Her focus on modern slavery came from general interest in how corporations make sense of responsibilities.

Dr Gutierrez-Huerter’s work on modern slavery dates back to 2014, before the 2015 Modern Slavery Act- designed to combat the practice- was passed in parliament.

To find out more, Roar sat down with Dr Gutierrez-Huerter O.

Roar: What has your work on modern slavery looked like so far?

Dr Gutierrez-Huerter O: In parliament they were discussing the bill, and I think there was recognition this was going to be a contentious topic and an issue for companies, I guess in the sense [of] how to deal with it but also lots of issues connected with the UK- I guess its stance on things like immigration and (…) openness to refugees and lots of things that are connected to that. Those were the early days.

I’m a qualitative researcher too. In most of my research I do field work and in this case, there was a lot of debate happening in industry conferences. I started looking at construction, knowing that the construction industry has a lot of problems—you know, corruption, lots of unethical issues, very adversarial culture in businesses—where I knew already: if we apply modern slavery to that industry, it’s going to be interesting to study.

So I started attending industry conferences; any major event in construction where modern slavery was being discussed. I guess I went to those meetings to really trace the development of debates on how to solve the issue and then the bill passed and there was the reporting aspect with Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act- this raised lots of questions of how companies are going to deal with that.

Eventually, the research basically showed that people have very different interpretations of what modern slavery is and that influences the type of responses because some people may say, you know, it’s a problem of the global economy/we can really not solve it while others may see it as a problem of human trafficking/something that is very far in remote areas and that it doesn’t happen in the UK. What I also started seeing is debates on issues around labor exploitation and human rights that were hampering the development of solutions- that’s how I joined the committee drafting the new standards on organizational responses to modern slavery.

I joined other people, other stakeholders from various communities—the anti-slavery community, Reese Management, academics, businesses, NGOs—and together, we put together this standard providing practical guidance on how companies can deal with this issue. This work on the standard was influenced by the research and that was why I won the award; I used my research and influenced the development of this guidance.

R: Tell us more about the award that you won?

G: It’s a responsible business award by the Financial Times. Every year, they have different categories. This is the category on research with real-world impact that’s basically looking at what piece of research influenced some sort of change broadly in businesses.

R: Is modern slavery a wide-spread issue in the UK?

G: It is, and that’s one of the interesting things when talking to managers. For a long time they thought these were things happening in supply-chains in Asia, in the developing world but not in the UK. But it is widespread in the UK, more than we actually think. I think the estimation worldwide is around 35 million and I think in the UK it’s 136 thousand people [in modern slavery], and the issue is that we don’t see it, it’s not evident, it’s hidden… infiltrated in lots of activities and businesses.

But there’s something that I saw as a positive thing in my studies: the perception has changed already. If we look back to 2014, I think businesses know that in the UK particularly after Brexit, suddenly we see that legal workers are not legal anymore- it creates a lot of vulnerability for workers in the UK. I think now there’s more recognition that it happens in the UK.

But also on the profile of these victims: I think many also think they are unskilled workers. Often it’s not the case, particularly when they travel from lots of countries where they’ve been deceived by these agencies that they’re going to have a job here. Many of them are qualified; they are professionals, but they end up in these conditions of slavery.

R: What can corporations do to combat modern slavery?

G: There is an extensive standard actually. We saw it like an educational piece. There is something distinctive: Before we tell companies “you should be doing this”, we had an educational part where we tell companies, “This is modern slavery, this is how you should be understanding the issue, it’s a complex issue, you may be contributing to it, and what’s your place really in the whole system of the global economy?”

But then of course, we have the guidance: “You’ll probably start thinking about leadership, who’s going to take responsibility for this inside the company and start thinking of your operating system- who are your suppliers, of course but other types of relationships too that may not be evident to the company.” To re-question business models, for instance. You know the business model is actually producing cheap labor and also producing cheap goods that, in the end, need to be produced in a way that cuts costs and that of course comes at the expense of exploiting workers.

I think, when it comes to serious commitments, companies may need to have a policy (some sort of description of what they want to do as an organization) and set commitments on how to tackle these. I think the standard gives more guidance on the more practical: How do you map your supply chain? And where do you start? And how far do you go? How do you start identifying risk because, you know, some geographical areas are more prone to this problem, there’s an absence of regulation in some places, there’s more acceptance in some countries of this problem. So I guess [we need to consider] those risk factors into the understanding of what the corporations do and [start] to identify that.

R: Do you believe that modern slavery can be eradicated?

G: Yes, absolutely, and I think it’s by changing this perception. I think there is this very fatalistic view in some ways that this is a huge problem, there’s nothing we can do about it, one single organization will not change the whole supply chain system. But I think we need to turn that perception, and I guess part of what we did, for instance, in the standard was change that framing. Companies are problem solvers; they can actually solve the problem. It’s the aggregated effect of everyone starting to ask questions: What is the reason? Can we maybe change some things in our supply chain so that then we will have a broader impact in supply chains? I think organizations, all of them, have a role to play here, either because they are contributing at the source or indirectly.

R: What originally inspired your work in this area?

G: I came from this social responsibility background of understanding just how things are organized, but I think in more recent years [I have been] more open to social justice issues and also to human rights. We’re probably moving from this notion of social responsibility to now organizing responsibilities around human rights. Modern slavery, at the time when I started studying this, was one of those issues that was really relevant in the umbrella of human rights. And there are others, right- I guess climate change is my next area where I would love to do more research where we’re seeing the intersectionality of things (like modern slavery with climate change). It’s the same vulnerable people that are exposed to modern slavery that will be effected by climate change and I feel there are issues around social justice. We talk a lot about climate change but social climate justice is missing. I’m dreaming up projects where we really need to see how these principles around social justice are lived up to by corporations and big business.

R: What would you like students of business, economics or generally to take away from this work? 

G: These are complex issues, right. We cannot treat this just simply with piecemeal efforts. We know many companies for a long time have been doing something good—philanthropic donations, some sort of social programme—but we’re not going to solve the bigger, deeper issues like that. I think it needs this requestioning the practices of businesses and really looking at what happens at the core of the business; looking at relationships with supplies but also business models.

It’s not just businesses, right. That’s the other thing. These are any organisations- King’s College also has supply chains in the public sector. So, anyone should be aware of these issues in their daily lives and that we contribute to as well as consumers, also by electing our politicians [when it comes to] the type of regulation and on bills connected to issues such as trafficking, around our treatment of refugees and the expectations we have of corporations on those issues. So, I think it’s shedding light on a complex issue that needs solutions that are well thought out. It’s a long journey to fix this problem, so hopefully students see we can do something about it but it’s a long journey and we need to start questioning those things.

R: Does King’s business school do enough to promote social responsibility in business?

G: We’re trying. I’ve been at kings since we became a business school. I think it is in our ethos that we live up to these things that we talk about and that we research, and that we pass on those learnings to our students. In recent years—I think it was three years ago—we re-thought again the curricula particularly around issues of social responsibility. We now have a business ethics and sustainability module for all business school students in their first year and I guess now the development of different sorts of options. We’re trying to live up to the mission of the school; preparing business leaders that are responsible.

There’s going to be an MSc in [Environmental, Social and Governance], so I think it’s also part of that and there’s also other developments: We will have an institute for responsible business that will be launched very soon here at King’s, and I think that will bring together research but also how do we make sure our research is connected to the things we teach to our students? So we are working on that. There’s more that could be done, but there is the commitment that we want to live up to what we preach.

R: What is your next step in your research?

G: Because modern slavery falls into this category of human rights (business and human rights), I am also increasingly interested in violations of human rights particularly in contexts where we know states also are colluded or they are also playing a role. So, I guess my research is looking at those issues particularly in extractive industries with those sorts of business where we know many communities are being effected.

That’s one area. But I think in modern slavery, I’m very much aware of this notion of impact. To make that difference, we need to speak to businesses. We cannot jut publish work and expect that someone will read it. I think my other plan is to continue these impact activities; organizing these round tables where we can speak to businesses and really tell them this is what we’re doing, this is what you should be doing. I feel sometimes as academics we should play this advocating role. We have the evidence, we have studied phenomena, particularly if its social phenomena. We can bring that to the table. It requires leaving the campus and making those connections. I think that’s the other area in which id like to continue working.

R: Do you any final take-aways from your work that you’d like to add?

G: I talk a lot about these things in my teaching, and I always feel, for me, the most immediate way to make change is through you guys, through students. Yes, I talk about this impact and influencing businesses, but I do feel speaking to the next generation is the most immediate thing. I find a lot of energy in doing that work. There’s a lot around inspiration too. I hope I’m doing that role of inspiring.

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