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.
What is the Protocol on Forced Labour?
The ILO has eight “fundamental” Conventions, which are binding international treaties that detail basic principles to be implemented once countries ratify these Conventions.
The “Forced Labour Convention, 1930” is one of these fundamental Conventions, which focuses on work performed against people’s will under the threat of punishment and the recently ratified Protocol serves to update the 1930 convention.
Australia ratified the Forced Labour Convention in 1932. Yet in the 80 years since, the types of exploitation and the ways in which people fall victim to exploitation have changed.
While traditional practices such physical restrictions and captivity persist, other practices such as debt bondage and conditions that rob workers of human dignity have evolved. Today, the chains that illegally bind many workers to the labour that they perform are more often psychological than they are physical.
The ILO Protocol ratified by the Government this week modernises the 1930 Forced Labour Convention. Its ratification will ensure that Australia’s policies and actions to address forced labour remain effective in present times
Modernising Responses to Modern Slavery
Among other things, the Protocol addresses the increased use of forced labour connected to the private sector and the responsibilities of nation states to make compensation and rehabilitation available to survivors.
It also emphasises education, especially among vulnerable groups such as migrant workers, and education of employers to prevent forced labour
The Protocol stresses the importance of due diligence in the public and private sector, and it underlines the need to address the root causes that heighten modern slavery risks. For example, the payment of (excessive) recruitment fees is a pervasive problem.
Sime Darby Plantation, one of the world’s largest producers of palm oil and a company whose products have been banned by the United States over allegations of forced labour, just announced a plan to reimburse workers RM38.55 million (AU$12.16 million).
Such company responses are rare however and are often a response to long-term campaigns by civil society organisations seeking justice for exploited workers.
The Protocol seeks to provide greater clarity and consistency to such reparations.
Incremental Progress in the Fight Against Modern Slavery
With the Modern Slavery Act and the National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery already in place, surely this means that Australia is taking appropriate steps to address modern slavery without the need for any new laws?
While public reporting helps to raise awareness, a recent report found that in the first year of reporting, 77% of the companies reviewed had failed to comply with the basic reporting requirements and 52% had failed to identify obvious modern slavery risks.
While some companies are making progress in better understanding and identifying modern slavery risks, there is significant room for improvement.
While education and increased awareness are useful, this alone is not sufficient to address the problem. Unfortunately, neither the Modern Slavery Act nor the National Action Plan provide clear guidance on how survivors of forced labour can be supported.
The Protocol dictates that nation states should assist in “rehabilitating” survivors and ensure that they do not suffer reprisals for their involvement in forced labour. Further, it demands that survivors should have access to remedies, including compensation.
This survivor-centric focus of the Protocol is critical and a valuable addition to Australia’s current initiatives.
The Protocol has now been ratified by 57 of the 187 ILO members. Australia’s ratification makes it only the fifth nation in the Asia-Pacific region to do so.
This is significant, as the Asia-Pacific region is said to have the second highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world.
Robust and continuing Government action on modern slavery is needed
Ratification of the Protocol strengthens Australia’s status as a leader in the fight against modern slavery, but ratification should be about more than gaining credentials in the international community.
To be true leader, a next step would be to encourage other countries in the region to follow suit, and there are other actions that the Australian Government can take.
For example, the recently announced 2022 review of the Modern Slavery Act provides an opportunity to strengthen the current legislation to enable more effective action, off the back of the ratification of the ILO Protocol.
Australia has thus far shown leadership in addressing modern slavery, but it cannot afford to rest on its laurels.
Martijn Boersma is Associate Professor, Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking at The University of Notre Dame Australia.
Professor Justine Nolan is the Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW Sydney.
A shortened version of this article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald.