Supply chain migrant worker exploitation

Fresh Food Supply Chain Worker Exploitation
Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Supply chains that deliver everyday products to our fridges and tables can link unsuspecting consumers to labour and human rights abuses. Supply chain transparency is a better answer to the issue of worker abuse than “cracking down” on visas, which can make workers more vulnerable to exploitation.

Four Corners’ investigation of labour exploitation in Australian fresh food supply chains showed that the issue is not limited to goods sourced abroad. Abusive working conditions can and do affect workers in Australia. As a union official on the program remarked, “almost every fresh product that you pick up … will have passed through the hands of workers who have been fundamentally exploited”.

Four Corners documented specific allegations across a broad cross-section of the fresh food supply chain: through picking, processing and packing, migrant workers were vulnerable to everything from underpayment to sexual assault. The allegations that aired on the program are plainly the tip of the iceberg and while both shameful and massive, are not new in Australia.

A 2011 report on the issue commissioned by the immigration department and penned by Melbourne barrister Stephen Howells found rampant exploitation in temporary work visa categories. It proposed increased penalties for unscrupulous employers and a focus on immigration investigations and prosecutions.

But tough talk, farm raids and visa crackdowns can result in further marginalisation for workers, with swift deportations being commonplace for those identified working in breach of visa conditions, before they’ve had a chance to assert their basic legal rights.

And how does this approach address exploitation in a supply chain? How does it hold the supermarket giants, like Coles, Woolworths and Aldi, to account? It doesn’t. These actions situate the problem at the base level only, rather than in a system of economic integration – the supply chain – that is fundamentally intended to dissipate responsibility.

Companies know that supply chain exploitation is a problem. Many adopt responsible procurement guidelines, but this often has the effect of merely pushing responsibility onto their suppliers. And supply chain scandals persist, proving that the current emphasis on corporate voluntarism falls dramatically short.

This has not gone unnoticed by government. A 2013 parliamentary inquiry into human trafficking recommended a review of Australian responses to labour and human rights abuses, including in a supply chain context.

The attorney general’s department established a supply chains working group – which will sit for the third time in June – with the objective of providing expert advice and recommendations to government about strategies to address exploitative labour. This little-known initiative involves government, civil society and, importantly, some retailers in a genuine multi-stakeholder process that, with any luck, will drive reform.

New approaches to supply chain responsibility show that it sits at all levels of the supply chain – from farmers to labour hire companies to retailers. The good news is that there is much that government can do to address this failing system.

If retailers intend to rely simply on the excuse that they do not know the conditions in their supply chains there is an obvious regulatory response: require them to know.

International approaches are informative on this point. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights make clear that companies are required to know the human rights impacts of their supply chains, and need to show that they know.

This “know and show” requirement is finding its way into legislation in Europe. In March this year the UK adopted a law requiring companies to report on the steps they have taken to identify slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains. French legislators are currently considering a law that would mandate a level of human rights due diligence by companies. Similar requirements have been proposed in Switzerland.

These moves are feeding into a broader global momentum: the human rights impacts of business are now being recognised as an area of legitimate concern and action by governments, many of which are developing national strategies to set expectations and guide the behaviour of the private sector.

While Australia lags behind on business and human rights programs, local initiatives in the textiles, clothing and footwear (TCF) sector have yielded promising results. Starting in 2005, parts of the Australian TCF sector have been subject to mandatory retailer codes imposing legal obligations at the top of the supply chain for working conditions at their base.

A sizeable portion of TCF work is performed by outworkers – a workforce with a recognised and prevalent vulnerability to underpayment, work-related injury, and insufficient protection by labour laws.

Under the NSW mandatory retailer code, retailers that sell clothing manufactured in Australia are required to enter into binding contracts with their suppliers detailing workplaces, contractors and conditions, that is, “to know”. And to keep records and disclose relevant information – “to show.”

A recent study of this program by researchers at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the Queensland University of Technology showed positive trends in work conditions. It found that regulating the behaviour of “lead firms” in supply chains is an effective, even crucial, step towards protecting workers.

Importantly, this study also recommended the model as suited to application in other industries. The Australian agricultural and fresh food industry, as Four Corners so clearly demonstrated, is ripe for change.

Brynn O’Brien and Martijn Boersma are members of the supply chains working group.

This piece was originally published in The Guardian

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