Make no mistake: you have personally benefited from modern slavery. It might be in the clothes you wear, the prawns you grill or in the smartphone you
may well be reading this article on.
Modern slavery is an umbrella term that covers crimes like forced labour,
human trafficking, bonded labour (where the worker is ostensibly paying off
a debt), and forced or child marriage. Migrants and refugees are common
victims, lured abroad with a promise of good work. They often have their identification documents taken and are housed in squalid conditions with other victims.
About two thirds of the global slave trade occurs in the Asia-Pacific. Some
of Australia's biggest trading partners, including China, Malaysia,
Indonesia and Thailand, are host to some of the most egregious crimes.
Human chains in the supply chain: click here for an accessible text-only version of this infographic.
Introducing a Modern Slavery Act
The Australian Parliament is currently holding an inquiry into adopting a
Modern Slavery Act, similar to one introduced in the UK in 2015. It would
bring the crimes of slavery, forced labour and human trafficking under a
single law, overseen by a new office – the Independent Anti-Slavery
A key pillar of the UK legislation is the requirement for big businesses to
publish annual transparency reports on the steps taken, if any, to ensure
slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in their supply chains.
For a sector seemingly allergic to red tape, the response from the
corporate world has been surprisingly positive: in fact, the push for
mandatory reporting came from big business.
Big business to the rescue?
Andrew Forrest, chairman of Fortescue Metals, is an evangelist for
corporate action on modern slavery. He encourages companies to root out
slavery in their supply chains and be upfront about it when they find it.
In 2012 he and his family founded the abolitionist Walk Free Foundation,
and he's been public about his own efforts to clean up
forced labour in Fortescue's supply chains
Forrest is certain slavery is endemic throughout the supply chains of
Australian businesses. He wants to see a modern slavery act which will
"encourage and celebrate" businesses that find and eradicate slavery in
In June, Forrest told the parliamentary inquiry about "a leading
businessman, who is a household name here in Australia, who said to me,
face to face, 'I will not look for slavery in my supply chains, in case I
find it.'" Forrest believes these moguls are scared of being demonised for going
public about slavery in their supply chains.
A fan of the UK legislation, Forrest doesn't want to see penalties for
businesses that have slavery exposed in their supply chains. He wants
industry to self-regulate as much as possible, with guidance – not
regulation – from governments.
"It is absolutely necessary that we make this easy for business so that we
make it hard for modern slavers," he says. "If we make it complicated for
business … all we will end up doing is encouraging modern slavery.
So, we must 'keep it simple, stupid'."
"It is our view that even with the best endeavours, no company can
confidently say that they do not have modern slavery or other serious human
rights abuses in their domestic or global supply chains."
Nestlé Australia, submission to parliamentary inquiry.
But will letting businesses police themselves really change anything? By
Forrest's own admission, self-regulation has its limitations. The UK system
only works if consumers shop with their feet when a company fails to
report, or doesn't report in sufficient detail. And there's little evidence
that conscientious consumers read, or are even aware of, such reports.
The proposed Australian Modern Slavery Act also doesn't address the
structural problems that exist in the British model. In the UK, there's no
definitive list of companies required to make statements, and once
published on the businesses' websites the statements aren't officially
compiled and made available. There are no penalties for failing to report.
An estimated 12,000 to 17,000 businesses trading in the UK are thought to
meet the criteria for mandatory reporting. The Business & Human Rights
Resource Centre, which has created a database of transparency statements,
has found just over 2500 – at best, this means four in five companies are
failing to comply with the law.
An Australian Modern Slavery Act seems likely to address some of these
issues. A central repository of statements has broad support, and a list of
companies required to report – compiled by ASIC – has been mooted. However,
these solutions skirt the edges of the real problem: for a business, it's
still very easy to do the bare minimum.
Slavery and human rights reports are like a dreaded homework assignment for
businesses, with ethically-minded consumers doing the marking. For some
businesses – especially those that aren't pursuing the ethical consumer
market – it might just be enough to go through the motions and call it a
The UK law gives companies guidance on the sort of things to report on. How
is your staff trained to identify abuses? Where are the risks in your
supply chains? How effective are your due diligence measures? But in the
end the only requirement is that the business publishes a report every
year, and many seem to not even manage that.
"It is evident that there is a great discrepancy in the quality of annual
statements," Paul Redmond of Anti-Slavery Australia said during the
parliamentary inquiry currently under way. Studies of statements published
in the UK have found many don't go into detail beyond broad commitments to
In his evidence to the inquiry Redmond held up two global companies for
Rio Tinto's slavery and human trafficking statement
[PDF] is a nine-page document that goes point-by-point through each of the
areas recommended in the law.
Qantas's slavery and human trafficking statement
[PDF] is a 348-word letter that gives a high-level overview of its ethical
procurement process, and next to nothing about how it conducts due
diligence on its 10,000 suppliers. Despite the differences, both companies
met their legal obligations with these documents.
Redmond says at the moment there's a commercial advantage to being a
"determined laggard" – a business that ignores abuses in supply chains.
Proper human rights due diligence isn't cheap, and if you're a
revenue-minded executive, it isn't always clear that it's going to pay off.
Anti-Slavery Australia recommends that, "at a minimum", the UK's reporting
guidelines be made mandatory, with penalties for companies that fail to
comply. They also suggest making it a crime to "fail to prevent" slavery in
supply chains, by making it a legal requirement that a business take steps
to investigate their overseas supply chains for abuses.
Australia taking action
An Australian Modern Slavery Act seems likely to take shape: the government has recently asked for feedback on a proposed corporate reporting regime, which makes the voluntary criteria in the UK system mandatory.
However, the $100m revenue threshold suggested by government has been criticised for holding only the biggest businesses to account – being much higher than the UK's £36m ($60m). And the opposition says that without penalties for failing to report, the laws will be "toothless".
The inquiry is still hearing evidence and will report back later
in the year.