Survivors of modern slavery report positive life changes through employment in Cambodia factory

A new study by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab has found a link between employment at Outland Denim’s manufacturing facilities in Cambodia and a ‘freedom dividend’ for formerly enslaved young women and their peers.

In a world-first case study and report assessing the fashion brand’s factory workforce, modern slavery expert and Rights Lab Research Director Professor Kevin Bales identifies the effects that the company’s socially responsible business model is having on its employees.

The report is particularly relevant to the fashion industry and wider business community as the United Nations asks governments and businesses to ‘build back better’ in the wake of COVID-19. Outland Denim and the Rights Lab aim to demonstrate to industry the global benefits of impact-led business, further encourage businesses to identify risks of modern slavery in their supply chains, and encourage governments to prioritise legislation that further supports the eradication of modern slavery.

Professor Bales describes the Freedom Dividend as “the idea that where slavery is suppressed, the economy grows. When freedom comes to formerly enslaved people, and includes the enjoyment of human rights, learning and training for job skills, access to medical and psychological care, something almost miraculous happens: a Freedom Dividend enjoyed by the whole society. This benefit spreads widely, increasing life satisfaction, economic attainment, and education levels, reducing health problems, and improving lives along many other measures.”

Through its corporate culture and training programme, Outland Denim supports its employees through a range of activities, including equipping them with job-related and life skills, and a basis for self-empowerment through holistic education in financial literacy, health and wellness, and self-defence.

The Rights Lab, including researcher Arianne Griffith, conducted a series of interviews with Outland Denim employees based in its production and finishing facilities in Cambodia, which were founded to offer holistic support, training and employment to young women who have experienced exploitation and human rights violations.

The study, titled “Social Progress and Responsible Business Practice,” measured the change in the lives of the respondents since childhood. Talking to a mixture of both survivors of modern slavery and those who had never experienced enslavement, Rights Lab researchers observed measurable positive change in relation to education, health, housing, socio-economic standing, low debt load and higher saving frequency.

The study also highlighted that there were significant improvements in employees’ sense of empowerment, ambition for their children, and detailed plans for the future.

Professor Bales joined Outland Denim and Baroness Lola Young to launch the report’s findings at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit earlier this week.

Professor Kevin Bales said: “Although we cannot establish that the actions of the company are the only or primary cause of the observed changes in the lives of their employees, it is noted that respondents in both groups have progressed in several areas and it is clear that their experiences at Outland have contributed to this progress.

Outland may be a perfect example of the triple bottom line, but it is more than that: Outland’s impact reaches far beyond the fashion market, generating a Freedom Dividend through helping people freed from slavery rebuild lives of meaning and purpose.

James Bartle, Outland Denim’s founding CEO, said: “The global fight against modern slavery requires a concerted effort from business, government, academia and NGOs to adopt the best policies to liberate the most people to achieve the sustainable development goal 8.7 by 2030.

In partnering with the University of Nottingham to produce this report, it’s our hope that more businesses, particularly in the fashion sector, would see the humanitarian benefit associated with adopting business structures and practises that help to alleviate the suffering of some of the most vulnerable people in our world.

He added: “The onus is on business to not only eradicate slavery from its supply chains, or adhere to minimum labour standard requirements, but to be adding value to the people involved in creating its products and services from the farm to factory and office floor. We must remember that these are people with hopes and dreams and families.”

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