Book Review: “Addressing Modern Slavery”

Book Review: “Addressing Modern Slavery”

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.

From the outset, Justine Nolan and Martijn Boersma tackle one of the persistent bugbears of contemporary discourse on modern slavery: the lack of a standard definition of ‘modern slavery’. In so doing, they also confront critiques of the use of this term. As Nolan and Boersma note, the term ‘modern slavery’ is inherently emotive and calls to mind the spectre of evil wrongdoers to be punished and helpless victims to be saved. This, as the authors observe, obscures the systemic and structural causes of this type of exploitation and ‘den[ies] agency to those exploited’. Nonetheless, Nolan and Boersma adopt the language of modern slavery, explicitly acknowledging its currency in public conversation.

They define the term broadly: ‘modern slavery’ encapsulates a ‘continuum of labour exploitation’ – the crux of which is the exercise of ‘abusive control’ by an employer over a worker, including by coercing or manipulating a worker to accept exploitative working conditions. In this way, Nolan and Boersma suggest that labour exploitation can span from conduct ordinarily regulated by workplace laws (such as underpayment of wages) to conduct that is usually characterised as criminal (such as slavery, servitude, and slavery-like conditions).

This is part of a conscious effort, by the authors, to recast the problem of modern slavery and locate it within the social, political, and economic realities of our globalised world. This is one of the central themes of the text. Throughout, Nolan and Boersma discuss the pervasiveness of modern slavery in our everyday lives. First, consider a simple transaction: paying someone to hand wash your car. The authors reveal that the car-washing industry has been identified as a high-risk area for labour exploitation in the United Kingdom, with some businesses being accused of misconduct including threatening or forcing employees to work, withholding the payment of wages, and failing to provide necessary safety equipment for the chemicals used. Recently, Australian car wash businesses have been taken to task by the Fair Work Ombudsman for the deliberate and calculated underpayment of wages.

Then, consider the more complex cross-border transactions involved when building a car in the first place. Modern slavery is almost certainly present. The mining of the mineral mica – which gives car paint its metallic sheen – has been linked to the deaths of child miners, to give just one example. In this way, both individual consumers (the car owner) and large corporations (the car manufacturer) can be the beneficiaries of modern slavery. These examples also illuminate the transnational aspect of modern slavery. Exploited car wash employees are often migrant workers. What happens in an illegal mine in India can taint cars that are purchased in Australia, many months later. This transnational element is identified as a key challenge when seeking to address the problem of modern slavery. Existing legal frameworks assume a level of state responsibility for the protection of fundamental human rights, while multinational corporations wield significant power and influence over global supply chains.

This book is commendably ambitious in scope. However, coupled with this – perhaps inevitably – is the application at times of a broad brush. This results in the relatively cursory treatment of certain matters. For example, the authors analyse the responses of different states to the problem of modern slavery by comparing legislation that requires companies (including multinational corporations) to report on their efforts to identify and address the risk of modern slavery in their supply chain. Other state responses are largely put to one side, including the role of labour inspectorates and other forms of labour supply-chain regulation, such as labour-hire licensing. Additionally, while the authors consider some examples of worker organisation, in general, there remains further scope for the authors to use their considerable expertise to more fully interrogate the role of unions and the labour movement. Finally, the reader may have benefitted from further discussion of relevant empirical studies on the efficacy of business-led private regulation of workplace standards in global supply chains. A challenging and thought-provoking picture has emerged from these studies about the notion of a ‘corporate social conscience’ and its impact in practice.

Addressing Modern Slavery concludes that collaborative efforts are required to address the scourge of modern slavery. The book is at its most compelling in its detailed account of how modern slavery taints our lives each day. It is a sobering realisation. Nolan and Boersma’s final call to arms – to take actions, both small and large, to eradicate modern slavery together – could not be more urgent.

This review was published on Australian Book Review and written by Sayomi Ariyawansa.

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