50 Million People in Modern Slavery Globally; 41,000 in Australia

The latest analysis reveals the disturbing reality that modern slavery continues to imprison millions globally, inclusive of upwards of 41,000 individuals in Australia. In its most recent publication, the Walk Free Global Slavery Index reports that 50 million individuals – with 12 million being children – are ensnared in contemporary forms of slavery, predominantly via forced labour and enforced marriages.

Our consumer-driven society is fuelling this disturbing trade in human suffering. Nations including the United States, England, Germany, and Australia are making substantial purchases of electronics, garments, and textiles, which are largely sustained through forced labour. Sweatshops exploit children by compelling them to toil for about 15 hours daily, remunerating them a mere AU$3, within confines akin to a jail cell.

Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Freya Dinshaw, points out a shocking fact. She said, “What Australian consumers might not realise is that 80% of the cotton China produces that ends up in clothing that Australians buy, comes from forced labour camps in Xinjiang.” Despite Australia being recognised as one of the top three nations battling modern slavery, its system leaves much to be desired.

Dr Martijn Boersma, an expert on modern slavery, commented, “The Australian Modern Slavery Act asks companies…to address the risks in operations and supply chains and basically report on those actions and the progress they have made.” Nevertheless, experts are calling for Australia to implement even more stringent measures. As Dr Boersma suggests, “What we need is for the government to step in, for example by introducing financial penalties for non-compliance.”

New Research: Is the Australian Modern Slavery Act Fit For Purpose?

The Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 (MSA) aims to combat modern slavery in the operations and supply chains of Australian businesses by requiring them to report on their efforts to address this issue. However, the question remains whether the Act is fit for purpose. This new report, based on data collected from a business survey and focus groups conducted in 2022 and 2023, offers new insights to inform policy change and business practices by examining the gaps between policy and practice in corporate modern slavery statements.

Effectiveness and barriers

Our investigation gathered input from respondents regarding the MSA’s effectiveness, best practices for implementing remediation measures, and potential reforms. The report presents evidence of corporate responses triggered by the MSA and stakeholders’ perceptions of its impact. Findings reveal a broad consensus that the current corporate responses to the Australian MSA are generally not benefiting victim-survivors of modern slavery. While the MSA raises awareness in the best case, it may also provide a superficial appearance of compliance for businesses that continue to depend on opaque supply chains and cheap labor without substantive commitment to addressing abuses.

Two critical issues highlighted by survey and focus group participants for improving policy and practices to address modern slavery are enhancing supplier relationships and stakeholder engagement. Respondents identified several barriers to effective remediation, including current procurement practices, low trust between suppliers and reporting entities, and inadequate resourcing by businesses for remediation efforts that would compensate and empower victim-survivors of modern slavery. Remediation is a crucial aspect of addressing modern slavery, and effective processes must prioritise risk to people over risk to business.

Remediation and potential reform

The findings also offer insights into practices that may contribute to more effective remediation of modern slavery, providing valuable lessons for government policy focus and businesses seeking to improve their approach to remedy. Survey data indicates that participants who engage key stakeholders in remediation, such as trade unions, report the most effective approaches. Other essential tools include risk management practices like supplier training and increased transparency from suppliers—practices currently utilised by Australian businesses.

Data from this report and previous research demonstrate a strong desire for MSA reform and the need to incentivise improved practices. A majority of survey respondents:

  • Endorse establishing an Anti-Slavery Commissioner;
  • Support harmonising the MSA with international standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and emerging legislation in other countries;
  • Agree that mandating human rights due diligence requirements would lead to improved responses to addressing modern slavery;
  • Support a mix of policy measures, including sanctions and incentives (such as disqualification from government tenders, financial penalties, and director liability) to better tackle modern slavery.

There is a clear disconnect between policy and implementation when it comes to addressing modern slavery within the operations and supply chains of Australian businesses. This stems from a lack of transparency in corporate supply chains, which hinders both the detection and resolution of modern slavery issues. To effectively combat this, it is essential to prioritize enhancing supplier relationships and collaborating with key stakeholders such as trade unions. The problem can only be resolved if it is first acknowledged and understood. Gaining better insight into labor conditions in supply chains through engagement with frontline workers is a fundamental and indispensable initial measure in the battle against modern slavery.

All respondents advocated for reform of the MSA to drive company action that benefits victim-survivors of modern slavery, rather than merely promoting superficial compliance with the Act. This report, therefore, serves as a call to action for both policymakers and businesses to work together to enhance the effectiveness of the MSA and genuinely address the issue of modern slavery in corporate supply chains.

Human Rights Due Diligence: An Overview

The purpose of this resource is to offer a comprehensive overview of global human rights due diligence legislation, including both proposed and enacted laws. Initially created for the Australian Cotton Industry, this document is also valuable for policymakers, industry professionals, civil society, and scholars interested in understanding trends in human rights due diligence, comparing legislation across countries, and estimating anticipated changes for businesses operating in Australia.

The Growing Focus on Mandatory Due Diligence

Over the past few decades, there has been heightened scrutiny on the societal impacts of businesses. International organizations have developed non-binding guidelines and recommendations since the 1970s, acknowledging companies’ responsibility to uphold human rights and implement due diligence across supply chains. However, these voluntary international agreements have fallen short in effectively safeguarding human rights within commercial supply chains. Consequently, governments have experienced increasing pressure to incorporate these guidelines into domestic legislation.

In recent years, there has been a notable increase in country-level due diligence legislation, inspired by guidelines from international organizations. Examples of such legislation include the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act 2010, the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015, the French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law 2017, and the Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018. Our analysis highlights the rapid development of due diligence legislation, with numerous drafts currently under parliamentary discussion. Critics have voiced concerns regarding the nature of these reforms, citing lenient penalties, weak requirements, and a limited scope of businesses affected. Despite these criticisms, the growing prevalence of domestic due diligence legislation demonstrates its potential to pave the way for significant change.

Key trends in human rights due diligence legislation:

  1. Increasing robustness: New legally binding regulatory frameworks are becoming increasingly more robust, with the expectation that mandatory due diligence across supply chains will be the end result.
  2. Expanding expectations: There is a growing expectation for small and medium-sized businesses to incorporate aspects of due diligence, as seen in the Aotearoa New Zealand proposal and Canadian Modern Slavery Act.
  3. Industry-specific legislation: Laws targeting specific industries have emerged, such as the New York Fashion Act and the US FABRIC Act.
  4. Broadening scope : Some proposals extend the scope of workplace violations to include worker exploitation, as in the Aotearoa New Zealand proposal.
  5. Legal redress for victims: Certain laws provide opportunities for victims to seek legal redress, as in the Dutch Child Labor Law.
  6. Increased fines and penalties: Some acts impose higher fines and penalties, such as the US Uyghur Forced Labor Act and the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence.

These trends indicate a global shift towards stronger and more comprehensive human rights due diligence legislation, emphasising the importance of businesses in upholding human rights and promoting sustainability across their supply chains.

Research on Political Investorism and Market Lobbying

New research out today on political investorism and insider/outsider market lobbying, which analyses shareholder activism and lobbying of market actors. We argue that political investorism in Australia is shaped by our corporate governance rules and market power of superannuation (pension) funds. We identify a category of ‘unnatural insider’ to describe the tactic of traditional outsiders acquiring insider status for political aims. Case studies analysed include market lobbying and threatened boycotts of banks/insurers over the Adani Carmichael coal mine, shareholder targeting of Coles over modern slavery, and superfund divestment campaigns.

Strategies for Improving Labour Conditions within the Australian Cotton Value Chain

The Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC) commissioned research to better understand labour issues along the Australian cotton value chain and to recommend strategies for the industry to explore.

Labour conditions for workers in textile and garment value chains remains an area of continuous concern. While Australian cotton enjoys a reputation as a clean, green crop grown under decent working conditions, once the cotton enters global value chains, all visibility is lost, and sustainable value is diminished. Actors throughout the chain, from brands and retailers to manufacturers, to non-governmental organisations, are working tirelessly to address working conditions in a boundary-less system with fragmented governance. Can fibre producers also play a role?

This animation provides an overview the seven solution approaches that were developed as part of a collaborative project between the Queensland University of Technology, the University of Technology Sydney, and the University of Notre Dame Australia.

The project team members: Alice Payne, Erin O’Brien, Rowena Maguire and Justine Coneybeer (Queensland University of Technology), Timo Rissanen and Karina Kallio (University of Technology Sydney), Martijn Boersma (University of Notre Dame Australia).

The various outputs developed as part of the project can be found here.

What can Australian Cotton Farmers do to Protect Garment Workers?

Ten years ago, the garment industry’s worst industrial accident – the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh – killed more than 1,100 workers and highlighted the travesty of conditions for millions of garment workers globally.

It spurred action to address exploitation, but for many workers little has changed.

Just in the past few months, Britain’s Tesco supermarket chain has been accused of profiting from the “effective forced labour” of workers in Thailand (making Tesco-brand jeans), while the world’s biggest clothing retailer, China’s fast-fashion brand Shein, has been exposed for rampant human rights abuses.

Such incidents are meant to have been eliminated, as big brands are supposed to leverage their power to effect change in global supply chains. Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, for example, requires companies with more than A$100 million in annual revenue to publicly report on their efforts to ensure their supply chains are free of labour exploitation.

The expectation has been that pressure from consumers and investors will be enough for retailers (who profit the most from driving down production costs) to drive change. Campaigners for better conditions say these requirements are all too often a “fig leaf”, because audits can easily be fudged.

Limited attention has been given to what suppliers can do to ensure their products aren’t associated with exploitation.

Continue reading What can Australian Cotton Farmers do to Protect Garment Workers?

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.

Continue reading From Local to Global: Best Practice in Fighting Modern Slavery

Modern Slavery and Renewable Energy

Australia should approach its renewable energy transition with caution, experts say, amid concerns of labour exploitation in the production of solar panels.

Polysilicon is the most common material used to produce solar panels, and around 45 per cent of the world’s supply comes from Xinjiang, China.

The United Nations says China may be committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, with experts accusing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of exploiting its Uyghur Muslim minority into forced labour to make products including solar panels.

China strongly denies allegations of human rights abuses against its Uyghur Muslim population.

Continue reading Modern Slavery and Renewable Energy

Leaning towards the Light: A Christmas Reflection on Modern Slavery

An outdoor symposium on modern slavery was held in Perth on 10 December 2023, moderated by Fiona McGaughey, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia.

Panel member(s) from left to right:

  • Dcn Greg Lowe, Director, The West Australian Catholic Migrant & Refugee Office
  • Jenny Stanger, Executive Manager, Australian Catholic Anti-Slavery Network
  • Shaeron Yapp, Principal Advisor of Human Rights, Rio Tinto
  • Martijn Boersma, Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame Australia

Continue reading Leaning towards the Light: A Christmas Reflection on Modern Slavery

Broken Promises: business failure on modern slavery

A new report, Broken Promises: Two years of corporate reporting under Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, examines the second year of corporate statements submitted to the Government’s Modern Slavery Register by 92 companies sourcing from four sectors with known risks of modern slavery: garments from China, rubber gloves from Malaysia, seafood from Thailand and fresh produce from Australia.

It finds that:

  • 66% of companies reviewed (down from 77% in the first year) are still failing to comply with the basic reporting requirements mandated by the legislation, with some companies not submitting reports at all;
  • Over half (56%) of the commitments made by companies in the first year of reporting to improve their modern slavery response remained unfulfilled based on their second year statements;
  • 43% of companies reviewed (down from 52% in the first year) are still failing to identify obvious modern slavery risks in their supply chains;
  • There is a mere 6% increase in the number of companies appearing to be taking some form of effective action to address modern slavery risks, with two in three companies still failing to act.
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