Andrew Forrest has called on the Australian government to consider legislation similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act to ensure Australian companies are held responsible for exploitation in their supply chains.
The billionaire businessman and philanthropist said Australia had the opportunity to lead the response to an issue deeply ingrained in the Australia Pacific region, which accounts for about two-thirds of the 45 million people in modern slavery globally.
“Critically, Australia’s supply chains are largely through Asia,” Mr Forrest said. “In this sense we are very exposed, and likely to suffer significant political and economic impact if slavery is found to be connected with our corporations or our government in any way.
“Australia could be the first country in the region to enact comprehensive legislation that ensures corporations are held to account for modern slavery in their supply chains, similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015.”
There are more people subjected to slavery-like practices today than at any time in history: almost 21 million people are victims of forced labour.
Due to complex and opaque supply chains, something you wear, eat or drink may very well have touched the hands of a person, even a child, working under duress and in hazardous conditions.
These human rights abuses are linked to Australian companies, investors, government and consumers through global supply chains: 60 per cent of trade in the real economy depends on the supply chains of 50 companies, which only employ 6 per cent of workers directly.
A total of 11.7 million victims of forced labour and 78 million child labourers are located in the Asia-Pacific region. Given the fact that seven countries in this region comprise Australia’s top 10 import sources, Australian companies and government have a responsibility to meet these human rights abuses head on.
Catalyst Australia researcher Martijn Boersma speaks to 2SER host Annamarie Reyes about exploitation in supply chains and what legislative measures the Australian Government must take. This includes ensuring that public procurement is ethical and making it obligatory for companies to disclose steps taken to combat exploitation in supply chains.
Australian businesses have recently been implicated in serious labour abuses, both within and beyond Australia’s borders. A new paper by Catalyst Australia and The Australia Institute examines legislative developments aimed at tackling slavery and trafficking in other jurisdictions, and argues that Australia should learn from these measures in the face of urgent human rights issues with immediate impacts for Australian companies, government, investors and consumers.
Justice Minister Michael Keenan has been accused of “death by committee” after he failed to respond to a report of a working group he set up recommending laws to stop exploitation in company supply chains.
The group has now released its own report fearing its recommendations will be ignored.
Exploitation scandals have hit major Australian brands over the past year. In February, Rip Curl was forced to apologise after its clothing labelled “made in China” was found to be made in North Korean factories. The company blamed a subcontractor.
Sunday marks three years since the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. This disaster led to the tragic loss of 1130 lives, left 2500 injured, and sparked a global debate about workers’ rights and ethical labour standards in low-wage countries. In Australia, civil society organisations such as Baptist World Aid and Oxfam lead the charge to expose labour abuses and improve working conditions in global supply chains. But thus far the government has been largely absent form this debate and has been slow to act.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are very much the flavour of the month. Widely regarded as instrumental in the next wave of economic growth, determining the ultimate recipe for innovation and entrepreneurial success is by many considered to be the holy grail. Indeed, we are all being encouraged to become like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and other hero entrepreneurs that somehow went from eating macaroni and cheese in a garage or a campus dorm room every night, to becoming obscenely rich by inventing new things we now obsessively use or log into every day.
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.
While this program is estimated to provide $484 million of funding, this is only half of what was spent under now-scrapped programs such as Commercialisation Australia, the Innovation Investment Fund and the Industry Innovation Precincts, representing a significant decline in government spending on entrepreneurs and innovation. While many agree that government programs can be improved, the cuts show a lack of understanding of the Australian entrepreneurial ecosystem.