Martijn Boersma is an associate professor of human trafficking and modern slavery at the University of Notre Dame Australia, where a new course aims to provide the skills and knowledge that will enable people to work proactively to put an end to the exploitation of vulnerable people.
Modern slavery and worker exploitation are severe types of exploitation that can be found both internationally and in New Zealand. To address these behaviours, significant collaboration between government agencies as well as civil society, corporations, trade unions, academics, and international partners is needed.
The New Zealand Government sought feedback on a new law aimed at addressing modern slavery and worker exploitation in New Zealand and around the world. The law would introduce new obligations for organisations with operations and supply chains in New Zealand. Below is a submission made by academics and representatives from civil society that work on modern slavery and labour exploitation.
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.
Two years into its operation, close to 4,000 statements have now been published on the government’s modern slavery register. Yet the extent to which the legislation is transforming business practices or making a tangible difference to the lives of workers remains highly uncertain. This report analyses 102 company statements published in the first reporting cycle of the MSA, to evaluate how many companies are starting to implement effective measures to address modern slavery and how many are lagging.
This report is part of a two-year collaborative research project by academics and civil society organisations aimed at improving responses to modern slavery and access to remedy for affected workers.
Some commentators have suggested that foreign companies that (in)directly profit from the systematic exploitation of Uyghurs in China must choose between profit and principle.
It seems like a straightforward question: do companies want to profit from the state-organised repression, exploitation and extermination of an ethnic minority, or do companies condemn the treatment of Uyghur people in China and deal with the backlash?
The conundrum underlying the question is as old as capitalism itself: what social costs are we willing to accept in order for companies to make a profit?
When the UK Modern Slavery Act was introduced in 2015 and its Australian counterpart followed three years later, these pieces of legislation were heralded as ground-breaking.
Both Acts require entities that meet the annual revenue threshold to report on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, what actions they have taken to address those risks, and what the outcomes of those efforts have been.
Crucially, the Modern Slavery Act in each country lacks hard sanctions for non-compliance and solely relies on stakeholder scrutiny and market forces for enforcement.
The UK Home Office states that “failure to comply […] may damage the reputation of the business. It will be for consumers, investors and Non-Governmental Organisations to engage and/or apply pressure where they believe a business has not taken sufficient steps”.
In Australia, Home Affairs states that non-compliance can “damage your entity’s reputation, undermine your ability to do business with other entities and damage investor confidence.”
While Australian entities are yet to report, reporting in the UK has been underwhelming. In 2017, 43 per cent of companies on the London Stock Exchange did not produce a report, nor did 42 per cent of the top 100 companies that were awarded government contracts.
It appears that many businesses in the UK had no fear of a consumer backlash for being non-compliant with the Act, even if that consumer was the government itself.
The vague threat of reputational risk thus seems insufficient to prompt action. This is corroborated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, who commented that “soft law’ frameworks have […] had a limited effect in ensuring corporate and state accountability”.
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.”