Before you left your house this morning, chances are that you used products and consumed goods that were produced by modern slavery. From the coffee you drink, to the clothes and shoes that you wear, to the phone that you use, modern slavery is a pervasive global problem that encroaches into the daily lives of all of us.
In Addressing Modern Slavery, Professor Justine Nolan and Associate Professor Martijn Boersma provide a comprehensive and accessible account of the role of businesses, governments and consumers in the proliferation of modern slavery. They address both the gaps in protection of workers in the global supply chain, and what more can be done to protect the dignity and human rights who are denied the chance to earn a decent living. In today’s conversation, we spoke about the emergence of corporate social conscience, the work that laws can do, the role that civil society can play, and a need for better enforcement mechanisms which will adequately address modern slavery. This is a really important book about a global phenomenon that is unsustainable. A must read for businesses, governments and consumers.
Professor Justine Nolan is the Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and Justice at UNSW Sydney. Her research focuses on the intersection of business and human rights, in particular, supply chain responsibility for human rights and modern slavery.
Dr. Martijn Boersma is an Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia and an Adjunct Fellow at the University of Technology Business School. His research focuses on the intersection of business and society, and includes areas such as labour standards in supply chains; corporate governance and social responsibility; gender diversity in corporate leadership; modern slavery; and employment and industrial relations.
On Monday 30 October I gave evidence to the Modern Slavery Committee of the NSW Legislative Council, regarding the review of the NSW Modern Slavery Act 2018. I spoke about the need for continued attention and resolve to ensure both fiscal and ethical responsibility in public spending. A transcript of the evidence can be found below.
The final instalment of a research series jointly conducted by nine academic and civil society organisations has been made publicly available. The publication, known as the Good Practice Toolkit, offers businesses crucial insights into human rights due diligence and ways to amplify their compliance with Australia’s Modern Slavery Act (MSA).
Drawing upon data collected over several years, the toolkit examines corporate responses to the MSA and their engagement in human rights due diligence. It zeroes in on two notably weak facets of business practice: stakeholder engagement and supplier relations.
The Toolkit’s main recommendations are:
Prioritise suppliers with demonstrated respect for human rights.
Work in partnership with suppliers in designing and communicating expectations.
Conduct meaningful and sustained engagement with workers and their representatives.
Engage with relevant stakeholders in the design of policies.
Use effective grievance mechanisms as an engagement tool.
The Australian Human Rights Institute (UNSW Sydney), Business and Human Rights Centre (RMIT), the University of Melbourne, the University of Notre Dame Australia, the University of Western Australia and Willamette University, in association with the Human Rights Law Centre, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre and Baptist World Aid, conducted this research. It follows earlier reports, ‘Australia’s Modern Slavery Act: Is It Fit For Purpose?’, ‘Broken Promises’ , and ‘Paper Promises’ .
Addressing modern slavery requires more than criminalising the illegal control of or mistreatment of individuals. It necessitates a comprehensive response to the various forms of modern slavery, including human trafficking, servitude, worker exploitation, child labour, forced marriage, debt bondage, and deceptive recruitment.
Australia has recognised this challenge and has implemented a range of laws, programs, networks, and support services to tackle it head-on. One key component of Australia’s response is the Modern Slavery Act 2018, which focuses on transparency reporting. This legislation mandates large businesses and entities operating in Australia to submit an annual statement to the government, outlining the actions they are taking to address modern slavery risks within their domestic and global operations and supply chains.
To promote transparency and accountability, these statements are made available to the public through the Modern Slavery Statements Register. As of early 2023, the Register has published over 7,000 statements from nearly 8,000 entities headquartered in more than 50 countries. This government-run register is the first of its kind internationally and has already garnered significant attention.
In accordance with the Modern Slavery Act, a review was initiated three years after its commencement, starting on March 31, 2022. The review aimed to assess the effectiveness of the Act in combating modern slavery and explore potential improvements to its framework and administration. It also sought to evaluate whether the law was being taken seriously and effectively implemented. Below you can find a summary of the review and recommendations, as well as the full list of recommendations made.
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.”
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.
This study examines how the risk of labour standards noncompliance can be rendered calculable and commensurable through a market device. We present a case study of the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), an industry certification scheme, which seeks to address labour exploitation in the Australian contract cleaning industry. We pay particular attention to the central device of the certification scheme – the pricing schedule. We examine how the pricing schedule shaped the calculative space informing contracting parties during the procurement process. In doing so, the pricing schedule increased transparency around the potential risk of labour standards noncompliance. The nature of this transparency and the perceived objectivity of the pricing schedule acted to reshape the market for contract cleaning, resulting in a redistribution of accountability for labour exploitation. We also examine how the pricing schedule formed part of a wider framework of accountability, and how these mechanisms enabled strategic co-enforcement of labour standards compliance by supply chain stakeholders. Overall, our study indicates the potential for accounting practices to play a more active role in shaping how markets address modern slavery risks.
The COVID-19 pandemic disruption has had a significant impact on the textile and apparel value chain, particularly on garment workers in the Global South. The disruption caused by the pandemic has raised questions about global justice and responsibility for these workers. This briefing paper investigates how the Australian cotton industry can influence working conditions along the textile and apparel value chain, and provides a detailed summary of the context surrounding the impact of COVID-19 on the textile and apparel value chain.
The pandemic had a calamitous effect on the lives of garment workers in the Global South. Women make up 80% of the labor force in the textile and apparel value chain, meaning that they have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in the sector. Migrant workers are important to the global textile labor force, and the exploitation of migrant workers has been an ongoing concern. The effects of COVID-19 are ongoing, and many countries are experiencing surges, different variants, and returns to lockdown, putting garment workers economically, socially, and medically at risk.
Global activism campaigns have sought to mobilise support and ignite corporate accountability. The #PayUp campaign, for example, urged consumers to hold brands accountable for paying their workers despite canceling orders. Large corporations canceling their orders had a dramatic effect on household income, leading to an increase in malnutrition and homelessness. The loss of jobs in apparel manufacturing was caused by several factors and continues to have a ripple effect on the longer-term economic security of workers.
As well as responding to the events of the pandemic, many actors are ‘future proofing’ their supply chains. The disrupted access to materials and political tensions will give some countries a notable advantage for export competitiveness. The global push for some textile industries in the Global North to ‘re-shore’ production has become a topical issue in recent policy debates. Responses to the problems faced by garment workers have focused on potential points of leverage at the endpoint of the value chain. Overall, the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic spotlight the need for stakeholders to work collaboratively to protect worker well-being.
On 25 August I briefly spoke to Paul Turton on ABC Radio Newcastle, about the Rail Tram and Bus Union’s (RTBU) industrial action and the role and future role of trade unions. I stopped short of singing The Internationale (but only just).
For three years, Sadam Abdusalam watched his newborn grow into a toddler through the screen of a mobile phone. He was thousands of kilometres away in Australia, and his son Lufti and his wife Nadila were stuck in China’s Xinjiang province, unable to leave.
A Uyghur originally from Xinjiang, Mr Abdusalam was separated from his family for three years after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seized Nadila’s passport in 2017. He said the CCP began taking “as many” Uyghurs’ passports as they could in that year.