Some commentators have suggested that foreign companies that (in)directly profit from the systematic exploitation of Uyghurs in China must choose between profit and principle.
It seems like a straightforward question: do companies want to profit from the state-organised repression, exploitation and extermination of an ethnic minority, or do companies condemn the treatment of Uyghur people in China and deal with the backlash?
The conundrum underlying the question is as old as capitalism itself: what social costs are we willing to accept in order for companies to make a profit?
When the UK Modern Slavery Act was introduced in 2015 and its Australian counterpart followed three years later, these pieces of legislation were heralded as ground-breaking.
Both Acts require entities that meet the annual revenue threshold to report on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, what actions they have taken to address those risks, and what the outcomes of those efforts have been.
Crucially, the Modern Slavery Act in each country lacks hard sanctions for non-compliance and solely relies on stakeholder scrutiny and market forces for enforcement.
The UK Home Office states that “failure to comply […] may damage the reputation of the business. It will be for consumers, investors and Non-Governmental Organisations to engage and/or apply pressure where they believe a business has not taken sufficient steps”.
In Australia, Home Affairs states that non-compliance can “damage your entity’s reputation, undermine your ability to do business with other entities and damage investor confidence.”
While Australian entities are yet to report, reporting in the UK has been underwhelming. In 2017, 43 per cent of companies on the London Stock Exchange did not produce a report, nor did 42 per cent of the top 100 companies that were awarded government contracts.
It appears that many businesses in the UK had no fear of a consumer backlash for being non-compliant with the Act, even if that consumer was the government itself.
The vague threat of reputational risk thus seems insufficient to prompt action. This is corroborated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, who commented that “soft law’ frameworks have […] had a limited effect in ensuring corporate and state accountability”.
The Queensland University of Technology and the University of Technology Sydney have been funded by the Cotton Research and Development Corporation to research “Strategies for improving labour conditions within the Australian cotton value chain” (2019-2022).
Non-Government Organisations are active in pressuring fashion brands to be accountable for their social and environmental claims. Labour is currently in the spotlight. Over 20 million employees in garment manufacturing in Asia Pacific are paid below the minimum wage. ILO ratification in Australia’s export countries is low and non-compliance high (up to 90%). This project will provide information to enable the cotton industry to understand labour issues along its value chain and recommend strategies for the industry to explore.
Phase 1 produced a heat map, based on secondary data, which provides an overview of labour issues affecting the textile and apparel industry in primary export destinations in the Australian cotton value chain. Click on the image below to see the full interactive heat maps which were created using Tableau.
In November I was part of a panel of experts that discussed forced organ transplants in the context of medical ethics, business and human rights implications, modern slavery obligations for Australian businesses, the United Nations’ human rights treaties and mechanisms, and Australia’s responsibility to protect and promote human rights.
Footage of this event held at New South Wales Parliament House can be found below. The section on Business and Human Rights starts at 55:00.
When the Bill that became the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) was introduced into the federal parliament, it was accompanied by a grim message: two centuries after the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom, it is estimated that there are twenty-five million victims of modern slavery worldwide. It also came with a bracing if Panglossian promise: that the Modern Slavery Act would ‘transform’ the way large companies in Australia do business, and drive a ‘race to the top’. Published a year after the introduction of this legislation, Addressing Modern Slavery is a timely reflection on the pervasiveness of modern slavery in global supply chains – and on the role of the state, business, and other actors in combating this serious and complex problem.
An estimated 40 million people across the globe are modern slaves. This means they’re coerced into work, earn low wages or are being exploited. What do you know about the conditions that the coffee you drink or the clothes you wear were produced in? Two experts explain how we all need to up the ante to consider ourselves ethical consumers.
Associate Professor Justine Nolan, Human rights law at University of New South Wales
Dr Martijn Boersma, Lecturer in Industrial Relations & Business Ethics, University of Technology Sydney
This interview was aired on ABC Radio National, Life Matters with Hilary Harper.
Companies often talk about being on a human rights ‘journey’; a long and winding course with many stops along the way. On the other hand, they are never on a ‘journey’ to profit – this tends to happen as quickly as possible. Given that Big Business has long been accused of paying lip service to its social responsibilities, the statement signed last month by virtually all the members of the US Business Roundtable, has caused quite a stir.
Their statement on the purpose of a corporation talks about dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers, supporting the communities in which they work and respecting people and the environment by embracing sustainable practices. It also highlights that the signatory companies, including Amazon, Ford and JP Morgan, ‘are committed to transparency’.
However, global supply chains are anything but transparent; today there are more than 21 million people around the world trapped in forced labour, most of whom produce goods for consumers around the globe.
The Australian horticultural sector is one of the most at-risk industries for modern slavery.
A recent survey by the National Union of Workers among 650 workers found severe underpayments and withholding of wages, excessive overtime, retention of identity documents, threats of and actual physical and sexual violence, and coercive and excessive payments for transport and board.
A group of academics, experts in the area of labour and human rights, modern slavery, and supply chains, have initiated an open letter in which they ask Coles and Woolworths to address labour exploitation and the risk of modern slavery.
Australia’s Modern Slavery Act requires businesses to report yearly on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, the actions taken in response, and the effectiveness of these actions. The first reporting cycle started on July 1.
Unfortunately, although companies and consumers are increasingly aware that modern slavery exists, it is a phenomenon that is often dismissed or misunderstood.
There are currently an estimated 40.3 million people enslaved around the world. If we are to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal to end modern slavery by 2030, then around 10 000 people need to escape from slavery each day.
Although people are becoming increasingly aware that modern slavery exists, it remains a phenomenon that is too often dismissed, underestimated or misunderstood. There is often confusion about what ‘modern slavery’ actually means as there is no one definition.
The Oxford Handbook of the Corporation assesses the contemporary relevance, purpose, and performance of the corporation. The corporation is one of the most significant, if contested, innovations in human history, and the direction and effectiveness of corporate law, corporate governance, and corporate performance are being challenged as never before. Continuously evolving, the corporation as the primary instrument for wealth generation in contemporary economies demands frequent assessment and reinterpretation.