Will Ratification of the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour Make Australia’s Approach to Modern Slavery More Survivor-Centred?

40.3 million people are a victim of modern slavery, 21 million of which are in forced labour.

While these estimates are not uncontentious, recurrent news reports that detail abusive working practices, including modern slavery in Australia and overseas, remind us that this is a real and significant problem.

For example, investigations into the Australian horticultural industry have uncovered a pattern of systemic underpayment and abuse of workers. Similarly, the production of rubber gloves in Malaysia is tainted by exploitative practices, such as excessive recruitment fees, withholding of passport and wages, threats to workers and forced overtime.

In the last four years, the Australian Government has taken steps to address workplace exploitation in the operations and supply chains of Australian companies and this week it ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Protocol on Forced Labour.

With the ratification of the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour, Australia inches closer to making its response to modern slavery more survivor-centred, placing increased emphasis on the rehabilitation and compensation of those that have been exploited.

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Modern Slavery Should Not Be Weaponised

Modern slavery has become a major talking point in recent years.

Many of us are familiar with the statistics: 40.3 million people are a victim of modern slavery, half of which perform forced labour. While not uncontentious, these figures are now well-known thanks to the advocacy of public figures and politicians.

While the abuses described by the term modern slavery do sadly occur, there are reasons to suggest that modern slavery is being weaponised for political purposes.

The big invisible problem of modern slavery allows the global system of production – and its exploitative features – to continue relatively unopposed, it is a useful tool in trade wars, and it helps to control the borders.

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Paper Promises? Examining Australia’s Modern Slavery Act

Two years into its operation, close to 4,000 statements have now been published on the government’s modern slavery register. Yet the extent to which the legislation is transforming business practices or making a tangible difference to the lives of workers remains highly uncertain. This report analyses 102 company statements published in the first reporting cycle of the MSA, to evaluate how many companies are starting to implement effective measures to address modern slavery and how many are lagging.

This report is part of a two-year collaborative research project by academics and civil society organisations aimed at improving responses to modern slavery and access to remedy for affected workers.

Paper Promises

Modern Slavery and the Employment Relationship: Defining the Continuum of Exploitation

The Special Issue on ‘Modern Slavery and the Employment Relationship: Defining the Continuum of Exploitation’ in the Journal of Industrial Relations is now available online. The Special Issue focuses on what the large- and small-scale risk factors are that can cause working conditions to deteriorate, on how people can become trapped in exploitative conditions, and on what can be done to prevent and remedy labour abuses. Included articles explore the macro-level, specifically by examining global value chains and the labour exploitation within the global production regime and by examining the producer-end (rather than buyer end) of value chains and the responsibilities of companies for working conditions further downstream (rather than upstream) in the value chain. Other articles explore the market-based character of business and human rights regulation. One article concludes that market enforcement of modern slavery regulation is sub-optimal and should include $ penalties and a public regulator while another article asks whether business and human rights regulation originating in the Global North can improve working conditions in the Global South (spoiler: it’s complicated). Articles looking at the micro-level examine labour regimes on factory floors, specifically by examining the influence of the post-Rana Plaza labour governance system on worker outcomes and conditions of employment (hardship remains but less sweatshops) and by documenting the work experiences of Romanian transnational live-in care workers in Austria, where workers gave accounts of having been treated unfairly due to their dependence on placement agencies and employers.

Boersma and Nolan - 2022 - Modern slavery and the employment relationship Ex

Research Article: Making sense of Downstream Labour risk in Global Value Chains

While the efforts by actors on the buyer-side of value chains – such as brands and retailers – to address upstream labour abuses are well documented, there is a lack of research into how actors on the production-side of value chains – such as raw material producers – can identify and address downstream labour risks. This research presents the findings of an action research project that focused on the Australian cotton industry. By applying a sense-making lens, we propose four properties that can be used to identify labour risk in global value chains, providing insights into the capacity of producers to address downstream labour abuses. We suggest that there is a possibility for a ‘book-end’ approach that combines upstream and downstream actions by buyers and producers in global value chains.

The article can be found on the Journal of Industrial Relations website.

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Seasonal farm workers make claims of ‘modern slavery’

Some Pacific Islander workers say they feel like they are being “treated like slaves” as fruit pickers in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme.

For Samoan man Alex Muese, arriving in Australia to work was a dream come true.

Mr Muese, 34, carries great responsibility as he cares for eight children, his wife and her parents.

When he received his Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) visa, he thought he would earn an hourly wage to support his family in Samoa.

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On modern slavery, we need moral leadership not market morality

This week the Senate passed a Bill seeking to amend Federal customs regulations to prohibit the import of any goods made using forced labour.

The government introduced the Modern Slavery Act in 2018. Do we need another law on this issue? Do we now need to make it unlawful to import goods produced by forced labour into Australia?

The short answer is yes.

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Modern slavery in supply chains of Australian supermarkets

Supermarkets in Australia and around the world are under growing pressure to clean up their supply chains and rid them of modern slavery.

Discount chain Aldi last week became the first of Australia’s supermarkets to sign up to the Slave-Free Alliance, an offshoot of global anti-slavery organisation Hope for Justice.

Under the agreement, Aldi committed to conducting a human rights risk assessment of its operations as well as providing modern slavery awareness training to its employees and business partners, so suppliers and staff with product sourcing responsibilities can identify the signs of modern slavery and take action.

But University of Technology Sydney Business School modern slavery expert Martijn Boersma said Aldi’s decision to sign up to the Slave-Free Alliance was “more on the symbolic side of things than on the substantive side of things”.

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Human Resource Management: For the Worker, Company, or both?

Question: I went through a ghastly experience at work and went straight to our HR team. They said they would treat my experience with “the utmost seriousness”, but were not sympathetic or helpful. It was clear from the very start they didn’t believe what I was saying and intended to side with the person who caused me such grief, no matter what.

I spoke with a friend about it who said words to the effect “HR departments aren’t there for employees. They’re there for the company.”

It’s been months and I’ve finally had the issue resolved separate from the HR department. I don’t work for the company anymore. But my question is, is my friend’s advice true? Is going to HR a waste of time no matter where you work, or was this just a bad HR team?

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New Research Article: Multi-Stakeholder Frameworks for Rectification of Non-Compliance in Cleaning Supply Chains

There is now an expanding body of literature on the significant problem of business non-compliance with minimum labour standards including ‘wage theft’. Extended liability regulation beyond the direct employer is seen as one solution to this non-compliance in fragmented but hierarchically organised industries—such as the cleaning industry. This article uses empirical evidence to assess the effectiveness of one such regulatory scheme, the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), in addressing non-compliance with minimum labour standards (including provisions of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) and the Cleaning Services Award 2020). We find that CAF has been successful in identifying and rectifying certain non-compliance, improving working conditions for some cleaners involved in the scheme. We synthesise the key success factors of CAF in view of envisioning the adoption of such co-regulation frameworks in other industries. We also propose legal reforms that will support change across the cleaning industry.

The article was published in the Federal Law Review.

Rawling et al. - 2021 - Multi-Stakeholder Frameworks for Rectification of
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