Australian government slow to respond to supply chain labour exploitation

Rescue workers and volunteers search by hand for victims amongst the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: Jeff Holt
Rescue workers and volunteers search by hand for victims amongst the debris of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: Jeff Holt

Sunday marks three years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. This disaster led to the tragic loss of 1130 lives, left 2500 injured, and sparked a global debate about workers’ rights and ethical labour standards in low-wage countries. In Australia, civil society organisations such as Baptist World Aid and Oxfam lead the charge to expose labour abuses and improve working conditions in global supply chains. But thus far the government has been largely absent form this debate and has been slow to act.

Today’s striking fragmentation of labour in global supply chains is at the hands of a small number of multinational corporations. Sixty per cent of global trade in the real economy depends on the supply chains of 50 corporations, which employ only six per cent of workers directly and rely on a hidden workforce of 116 million people.

These obscure employment relations mean that labour exploitation is rampant. The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 20.9 million people in forced labour around the world, 11.7 million of these persons located in the Asia-Pacific region.

These practices generate $US150 billion annually, $32 billion from human trafficking alone. The Asia-Pacific region also has the largest number of child labourers in the world, almost 78 million individuals. Considering that seven countries in the Asia-Pacific region comprise Australia’s top ten import sources, labour exploitation is a significant problem for Australian authorities, companies, investors and consumers.

A recent example are the Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai fishing industries. Greenpeace published a report revealing that these industries, which are the top suppliers of prawns to Australia, are characterised by widespread human trafficking and labour abuses.

However, we do not have to look abroad for supply chain labour exploitation. A 2015 Four Corners investigation showed that labour abuses also occur in domestic supply chains.

Encouragingly, in a number of jurisdictions around the world meaningful action is being taken. In the United Kingdom, as of the first of this month, businesses with an annual turnover of £36 million or more must disclose what steps they are taking to ensure that slavery, forced labour and human trafficking are not taking place in their own operations or at their suppliers.

This measure is inspired by the Californian Transparency in Supply Chains Act, effective since January 1, 2012, which requires companies of $100 million annual revenues or more to “disclose [their] efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from [their] direct supply chain[s] for tangible goods offered for sale.”

In addition, since March 2015, Federal government contractors in the United States with contracts that exceed $US500 million in value are required to take measures to ensure that their supply chains are free of human trafficking and slavery.

The European Parliament voted in May 2015 in favour of a strengthened proposal on the traceability and mandatory monitoring of supply chains that involve conflict minerals, a measure that will affect 800,000 European companies.

Yet, the Australian government, already tone-deaf in the global debate on climate change, is not responding to growing international concerns about supply chain labour exploitation. Three months after the Rana Plaza disaster, a parliamentary inquiry that commenced in 2012 tabled a report detailing the extent of modern slavery and human trafficking and its implications for Australia.

A full 16 months later, the Australian government only accepted one of the report’s eight recommendations in full: the continued use of international mechanisms to combat trafficking.

More ambitious recommendations such as a Federal compensation scheme for victims and extended access to support services were not taken on. Last December, the Australian government was presented with nine more recommendations to address supply chain exploitation. The proposed strategies, ranging from ambitious to modest, are the result of the work by the supply chains working group, established by the Federal Attorney General’s Department, consisting of representatives from government, civil society, industry and academia.

The government, by means of the Minister for Justice Michael Keenan, is yet to respond.

Considering the extent of labour exploitation in global supply chains, it is critical that adopted measures clearly define the regulatory obligations of businesses, while providing government, consumers and investors with the possibility of identifying transgressions. Adopting measures that rely on a degree of coincidence between the self-interest of businesses and broader public concerns would be naive and not in the best interest of exploited workers like those who suffered and died three years ago in Bangladesh.

Article originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald

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