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.
Justice Minister Michael Keenan has been accused of “death by committee” after he failed to respond to a report of a working group he set up recommending laws to stop exploitation in company supply chains.
The group has now released its own report fearing its recommendations will be ignored.
Exploitation scandals have hit major Australian brands over the past year. In February, Rip Curl was forced to apologise after its clothing labelled “made in China” was found to be made in North Korean factories. The company blamed a subcontractor.
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.
Modern supply chains are long, complex and global, making it harder for businesses to know who they’re really dealing with, and for consumers to feel confident they’re buying ethically. The negative consequences of that complexity can be as devastating as the deadly Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, which galvanised public opinion about the conditions under which our clothing is produced. Revelations about Australia’s food industry in a recent ABC Four Corners report show there are issues to be addressed at home too. So, the conversation has turned to the need to build responsible supply networks and the challenges in doing that. That’s the focus of the Sustainable Supply Network Initiative at UTS Business School and this #think public lecture.
Supply chains that deliver everyday products to our fridges and tables can link unsuspecting consumers to labour and human rights abuses. Supply chain transparency is a better answer to the issue of worker abuse than “cracking down” on visas, which can make workers more vulnerable to exploitation.