From Local to Global: Best Practice in Fighting Modern Slavery

If people are serious about ending modern-day slavery, consumers need to be prepared to pay more and companies must be prepared for a drop in profits, while governments must pass unpopular legislation, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America has warned.

Professor Mary Graw Leary is a founding director of the Bakhita Initiative for the study and disruption of modern-day slavery.

In her address to The Tablet webinar, “From local to global: best practice in fighting modern slavery and human trafficking”, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Australia, she acknowledged that “great strides” have been made in fighting modern slavery and human trafficking in a fairly short period of time.

As of November 2022, 180 nations have ratified the Palermo Protocols (2000), a UN accord which aims to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in human beings, she said. However, she added that “there is so much more to be done”.

Professor Leary noted that 49.6m people are living in conditions of modern slavery according to the International Labour Organisation and 27.6m people are trapped in enforced labour across an industry worth $150bn.

Given the numbers involved, millions of prosecutions for human trafficking would be expected but instead just 10,572 prosecutions were recorded worldwide in 2021.

From Disclosure to Due Diligence

Referring to Alison Rahill’s presentation to the webinar on the work done by the Australian Catholic Anti-Slavery Network, Professor Leary said there was a movement from disclosure to diligence, which was forcing companies to do more than just say their supply chains are clean.

As executive officer of the Australian Catholic Anti-Slavery Network (ACAN), Alison Rahill explained how legislation like the Australian Modern Slavery Act was driving companies to report, assess and mitigate the risk of modern slavey.

“It is only because we have mandatory regulatory legislative reporting requirements that these activities are actually happening. Otherwise companies in Australia wouldn’t be doing anything,” she said.

ACAN brings together Catholic organisations across education, health and age care, social services, investments and diocesan services with budgets that exceed AUS$100m.

This network of Catholic organisations spends AUS$8bn every year on goods and services across 1,500 schools, 66 hospitals and various age care facilities.

The network’s Modern Slavery Risk Management Programme is designed to address all of the mandatory reporting criteria of Australia’s 2018 modern slavery legislation.

“A lot of the programme starts with internal change management because we are moving charity spending from looking at buying the cheapest goods and services to ethical sourcing and that involves a lot of change,” she said.

The programme provides network members with a suite of shared tools and resources including things like e-learning modules in order to ensure that people across 51 organisations are brought up to speed fairly quickly about modern slavery risks and reporting requirements.

“One of the first things we did was look at where is money being spent. The biggest areas of expenditure are construction of new schools, new hospitals and age care facilities as well as medical devices supplies,” Ms Rahill explained.

Shifting the Emphasis

According to Prof Leary, the focus of those seeking to bring about best practice must remain on demand but there must also be a shift in emphasis.

“Previously we framed it as those who clearly know they are engaged in or benefitting from trafficking – for example a purchaser of a sex trafficked victim/survivor.

“By focusing on demand, what we need to do is focus on all those companies benefitting from trafficking. So for example maybe a hotel is not the primary trafficker but they are certainly benefitting from a cleaning crew that is trafficked.”

She pointed to three changes needed to pivot from a culture which accepts trafficking as a cost of doing business to a model of best practice in fighting modern slavery and human trafficking.

The first change, she said, underscores the necessity of educating the public about the social harm of trafficking.

“The general public needs to understand what is the harm and what is it like to be a victim of sex trafficking.”

The second is that those who benefit from trafficking flows, both consumers and businesses, must be stigmatised: “There has to be a cost or else it will continue to be this low risk – high profit scenario.”

Lastly, Prof Leary said that there must be laws tackling supply chain demand for sex trafficking that make a public statement that this is not acceptable.

The Question of Enforcement

Another speaker, Martijn Boersma, associate professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia, where he teaches on the postgraduate programmes dedicated to combatting modern slavery and human trafficking, said the UK and Australian Modern Slavery Acts were “far from perfect” due to the enforcement mechanism that they rely on.

“There is no enforcement in terms of hard sanctions or no financial penalties,” he said. Rather they were based on the market enforcing the law.

The original thinking behind this approach was that greater transparency would force companies to do the right thing or risk reputational backlash from consumers and investors.

But according to Professor Boersma, over-reliance on the market to enforce regulations and implement the good intentions of policy makers and governments in anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation laws is “a flaw”.

“We go where wages are cheapest, we source the cheapest type of contracts. That kind of market thinking is also applied in terms of the enforcement of [anti-trafficking laws] and that doesn’t always create ideal situations.”

He recalled how shortly after the introduction of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act in Britain, compliance figures showed that about half of the companies with large UK government contracts were not complying with the terms of the modern slavery act.

So even where the government was seeking the services or goods and there were ramifications for non-compliant companies, only half of companies complied with the act.

This, he said, showed that the market should not be relied on for enforcement.

“There is a long way to go,” he said.

Global Freedom Network

Franca Pellegrini, Director of the Global Freedom Network, the faith-based arm of Walk Free, spoke to the webinar about the network’s understanding of the importance of working with religious leaders, especially in places where faith remains deep and there is also a high threat of trafficking.

Since 2019, the Global Freedom Network has focused on six countries in Africa and developed a phone app called Faith for Freedom to help religious leaders understand what trafficking is and how they can help their communities.

The charity is working with the Religious Leaders Council in Kenya and Compassion International and 407 churches in Ghana to roll the app out and it is part of a wider initiative of challenging forced marriages.

The article was originally published by The Tablet.

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