Reconceptualising responses to the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act
: a construction industry case study

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act (MSA) mandates that companies with a turnover of £36 million publish an annual statement on the actions they are taking to address modern slavery within any part of their business. Existing scholarship has highlighted that the Act is reliant upon market forces to bring about change in companies’ supply chain management. And yet, the role of economic imperatives in companies’ responses to the Act has received very little attention. Furthermore, where there have been attempts to situate company behaviour in wider socio-economic dynamics, individuals’ agency has been neglected. This thesis responds to both points. It does so by innovating a novel theoretical framework, modifying open Marxism with Radical Historicism. This privileges agency in its relation to structure, allowing for empirical exploration of agents’ strategies. Analysis draws on data generated through a qualitative case study of the UK construction industry using two methods: 50 semi-structured interviews, and documentary analysis of corresponding companies’ modern slavery statements. The result is the identification and explanation of four strategies—denial, conformity, assertion, and displacement¬—agents use to navigate capitalist economic imperatives in developing modern slavery mitigation measures. These strategies explain why the construction industry’s response to the MSA represents a form of underwhelming over-compliance, which is more than the Act strictly demands, but is nevertheless insufficient for addressing the presence of labour exploitation risks. This analysis contributes to the literature on the MSA by responding to the under-theorisation of agency and structure, which in turn has implications for the notion that modern slavery can be eradicated within capitalism through ‘ethical’ behaviour.
Date of Award6 Dec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorJennifer L Johns (Supervisor) & Harry Pitts (Supervisor)

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