Review of “Addressing Modern Slavery” in Journal of Industrial Relations

Modern slavery has gained attention in scholarship, legislation and media in recent years – and rightly so. As Nolan and Boersma discuss, the term ‘modern slavery’ is not unproblematic but is now commonly used to refer to several practices, including forced labour, bonded labour, trafficking, child slavery and forced marriage (pp. 7–8). The book is extremely timely and of particular interest in Australia since the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act (Cth) 2018. This Act requires large businesses and the Commonwealth government to report on risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains (including overseas) and steps they are taking to address them. The first reports under the Act are due in 2020.

Although the Act itself is not central to the book and indeed the book is international in scope, there is a certain Australian and Asia Pacific ‘flavour’ to it, which is a welcome addition to existing scholarship. It is also important given that the Asia Pacific region is identified as a high-risk region for modern slavery.

Much of the work on modern slavery is either narrow and legalistic (e.g. written by legal academics) or superficial and lacking in practical detail (e.g. reports published by consultancy firms). This book rejects both of these approaches. Despite the lead author being a legal academic, the book avoids unnecessary legalism. It combines insightful, macro analyses of modern slavery with pragmatic understandings of its manifestations. A key strength of the book is that it is a fairly accessible read and draws heavily on case studies and examples to illustrate and demystify the concept of modern slavery. What is evident from the clear but detailed content is that the work is written by experts, and this expertise is consolidated in the book.

The book has five chapters. The first outlines the nature of modern slavery as a global issue and offers some useful definitions and examples of manifestations of modern slavery. It also usefully situates modern slavery within an economic framework – essential for understanding drivers and causal factors. The chapter juxtaposes historical and contemporary accounts of slavery, which make powerful and compelling reading. Chapter 2 explores the intractable and pervasive nature of global supply chains. This includes a useful overview of high-risk goods (including bricks, cotton, garments, cattle and sugar cane) and industries (including manufacturing, mining and agriculture). Practical examples of cases of modern slavery, such as forced labour in Thailand’s fishing industry and the use of state-sanctioned slave labour in some countries, serve as sobering illustrations for the reader. However, for the Australian reader, we are reminded that these cases do not only happen overseas. For example, the authors describe a case of bonded labour in Queensland through Australia’s ‘Seasonal Worker Program’. In addition to blatant criminal acts such as bonded or forced labour, the chapter forces us to question our position as consumers by telling the reader how materials in their homes and cars can be linked to modern slavery.

Chapter 3 then turns to chart the development of international agendas such as ‘corporate social responsibility’ and business and human rights. The chapter also provides a succinct summary of the relevant international law of relevance to modern slavery, but this is far from dry and legalistic, as the chapter is heavily interspersed with real examples of how companies have engaged with these agendas (or not). This leads neatly to the question of regulation in Chapter 4, which discusses some of the relatively recent legislative developments in various jurisdictions, such as the business reporting laws in the UK and Australia (the Modern Slavery Acts). The authors see these laws as ‘important but imperfect’ (p. 146) and draw attention to ‘human rights due diligence’ as required by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They identify the need for stronger laws with thorough enforcement.

Chapter 5 is forward-looking on how we can collectively tackle modern slavery and provides something of a roadmap for the future. The authors take a holistic approach to the issue and identify key stakeholders and the roles they must play. These include states, corporates, civil society, shareholders and consumers. The final words of the book on modern slavery are suitably uplifting: ‘Together, we can take actions, small and large, to eradicate it.’ We can, let’s do it.

Finally, an added bonus is the very reasonable pricing of the book. Often texts produced by academics and academic publishers are prohibitively expensive. In this case, the pricing is reasonable and as such more accessible to a wider readership. It is likely to be of interest to government, business, academics, civil society and international organisations. The issue of contemporary forms of slavery remains topical and one of rapid legislative development around the world. As such, I am sure we can look forward to reading more from Nolan and Boersma.

This review was written by Fiona McGaughey (University of Western Australia) and published in the Journal of Industrial Relations.

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