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 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.
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 more people subjected to slavery-like practices today than at any time in history: almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour.
Due to complex and opaque supply chains, something you wear, eat or drink may very well have touched the hands of a person, even a child, working under duress and in hazardous conditions.
These human rights abuses are linked to Australian companies, investors, government and consumers through global supply chains: 60 per cent of trade in the real economy depends on the supply chains of 50 companies, which only employ 6 per cent of workers directly.
A total of 11.7 million victims of forced labour and 78 million child labourers are located in the Asia-Pacific region. Given the fact that seven countries in this region comprise Australia’s top 10 import sources, Australian companies and government have a responsibility to meet these human rights abuses head on.