Over the last couple of weeks, following the end of my internship with SAS, I have been listening to a podcast about human trafficking. It’s been eye-opening and heartbreaking. In several episodes, the podcast references modern slavery often and I was drawn back to the research I did with SAS regarding modern slavery and supply chain transparency. Broadly, I often considered the various aspects of corporate behavior (ex. negligence, unchecked commitment to profit, etc.) that contribute to the perpetuation of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other unethical practices.
As I think about my time with SAS, and my weekly reflections, I continue to reckon with the complexity of corporate social responsibility and the various aspects of society that influence corporate behavior, and vice versa. This time however, I think I have more clarity on the questions I proposed over the last eight weeks.
This podcast that has captivated my attention has made it abundantly clear that there is no room for error or leniency when it comes to unethical corporate behavior. It seems to have transformed my through process – I no longer want to forgive companies for engaging in modern slavery or other unethical practices; I do not want to give companies the benefit of the doubt for ignoring supply chain transparency recommendations; and I do not want to treat corporate interests (usually completely financial/fiscal) as relevant in a discussion where human lives are at risk of being trafficked, exploited, and abused.
To be clear, I understand that there is ethically ambiguous or questionable corporate behavior that I might be able to reckon with in a more forgiving manner. However, in a way that my own extensive personal research and commentary from corporate employees failed to do, this podcast seemed to undo the ways in which I became numb to constant reiterations of human suffering and exploitation. In explaining the ways in which human trafficking and modern slavery destroy lives, unleash unimaginable human suffering, and exploit people, the podcast forced me to grapple with the horrible reality that even humans have become a commodity and commercial objects to several actors (companies included!). I guess, and assume, that corporate leaders are not sitting at a table deciding to exploit children as labor and force them to work in horrifying conditions, but their complacency speaks volumes for their prioritization of money over people.
It seems possible that in my attempt to gain a more comprehensive and robust understanding of corporate decision-making and understand why they continue to engage in unethical practices, such as modern slavery, discrimination, and environmental negligence, I lost my commitment to, and concern for, the impact corporations have on people. I am embarrassed to ever think that I thought that certain corporate prioritizations/actions could be excused or were necessary. I am confused as to why I ever believed that certain companies’ shallow and performative efforts to salvage their reputations or conceal unethical behavior could be authentic or a step towards social change.
At this point, I return to my original questions. If I am unwilling to excuse companies for engaging in unethical practices, is the only way for reform to dismantle corporate structures and economic policies as we know them? Is my seeming loathing of corporations and their leaders who are complicit in the continuation of human rights violations and unethical practices furthering the divide between those who want reform and those who are in power to be able to reform (I think of how staunch political divides and hatred create unsolvable gridlock). I am wondering if there has to be a willingness to compromise. But, in this case, does there need to be the consideration of compromise; should we loosen our grip on wanting to completely eradicate human trafficking and modern slavery-esque corporate practices? If we do, maybe, at least we will see incremental progress? Is this something we should be okay with? Can we effectively partner with corporations and their leaders while holding their fully accountable for their misdeeds? Should we acknowledge any positive changes they make, or push them to go farther and reprimand them for not doing enough?
As I return to Duke, I look forward to my classes that will continue to provide me with greater understandings of political and economic structures, both in the US and globally, that will better equip me to dig deeper into these questions. For now, I think I am back to being someone who harbors “great disdain toward large corporations”; and I reject my initial hesitation that I might be “exaggerating corporate malfeasance and discrediting their potentially vital role in driving social change”. That being said, I am confident that this is a perspective I will not maintain for long (as it changed throughout the course of my internship). I wonder how it will shift, or mutate, as I keep making decisions and choices, like educating myself with this podcast and books exploring human trafficking and modern slavery, or comfortably abandoning any desire I previously had to work in a corporate environment.