Supermarkets in Australia and around the world are under growing pressure to clean up their supply chains and rid them of modern slavery.
Discount chain Aldi last week became the first of Australia’s supermarkets to sign up to the Slave-Free Alliance, an offshoot of global anti-slavery organisation Hope for Justice.
Under the agreement, Aldi committed to conducting a human rights risk assessment of its operations as well as providing modern slavery awareness training to its employees and business partners, so suppliers and staff with product sourcing responsibilities can identify the signs of modern slavery and take action.
But University of Technology Sydney Business School modern slavery expert Martijn Boersma said Aldi’s decision to sign up to the Slave-Free Alliance was “more on the symbolic side of things than on the substantive side of things”.
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?
The cleaning industry has long had a reputation for exploiting workers, as cut-throat competition delivers contracts with profit margins so thin there’s little room to pay cleaners their legal entitlements.
The Cleaning Accountability Framework, with the help of a group of business, law and IT researchers, is making inroads into what has seemed at times an intractable problem.
Dr Martijn Boersma, who lectures in industrial relations and business ethics at the University of Technology Sydney Business School, has been working with CAF and says non-compliance with labour standards has been a big issue in the cleaning industry.
The Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Uyghur Forced Labour) Bill 2020 is currently under consideration by the Australian Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee and a report is due by 12 May 2021.
Professor Justine Nolan and Dr Martijn Boersma have made a submission arguing that the Australian Government should:
Expand the proposed Bill to prohibit the importation of all goods produced or manufactured using forced labour (regardless of their geographical origin).
Consider the ability to impose fines on importers and end-buyers who import prohibit good and apply such fines for the provision of institutional support for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.
Ratify ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (PO29) to ensure the development of holistic legislative framework that will sit alongside the Modern Slavery Act, and a new law that bans the importation of goods produced or manufactured using forced labour.
Consider publicly disclosing which goods are prohibited from importation, as well as associated importers, manufacturers and geographical locations.
Modern slavery has gained attention in scholarship, legislation and media in recent years – and rightly so. As Nolan and Boersma discuss, the term ‘modern slavery’ is not unproblematic but is now commonly used to refer to several practices, including forced labour, bonded labour, trafficking, child slavery and forced marriage (pp. 7–8). The book is extremely timely and of particular interest in Australia since the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act (Cth) 2018. This Act requires large businesses and the Commonwealth government to report on risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains (including overseas) and steps they are taking to address them. The first reports under the Act are due in 2020.
Addressing Modern Slavery provides important insights into the complexities that perpetuate slavery in a contemporary context, long after it was officially abolished. This book confronts the dark side of development that comes with intractable, complex, multi-tiered global supply chains. In particular, it highlights that global supply chains not only link us to modern slavery, but frequently generate the preconditions necessary for modern slavery to flourish in industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and mining, which account for the majority of slaves in the world. Governments can also be complicit: while modern slavery can be connected to companies and consumers through supply chains, there are also governments that actively promote and benefit from slave labour.
“Does our globalised economy rely on the exploitation of the vulnerable? Are we, as consumers, an intrinsic part of chains of supply and complicity that keep 40 million people enslaved? Justine Nolan and Martijn Boersma wrote Addressing Modern Slavery to define and dissect a phenomenon we think of as remote but is more prevalent than at any time in human history. Based on years of forensic research, this impressive book is mandatory reading for anyone committed to ending exploitation and the scourge of modern slavery.”
The COVID-19 coronavirus is officially a pandemic, the US and Australian share markets have collapsed, both governments have unveiled stimulus packages, and Australia’s trade union movement is worried about the position of casuals. But things are worse overseas, including for the workers who make products for Australians.
20,000 garment workers in Cambodia face job losses from factory closures because of shortages of raw materials from China and reduced orders from buyers in the virus-affected locations including the United States and Europe. Thousands have already lost their jobs in Myanmar. Garment workers in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are uncertain of their futures.
This week an already impressive list of wage theft offenders has gotten a bit longer.
On Monday, the likes of Caltex, 7-Eleven, Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza and Bunnings (to name a few), were joined by Coles, which underpaid its staff $20 million over six years.
On Wednesday, Target admitted to underpaying workers about $9 million.
On Thursday, Super Retail Group – whose brands include Rebel and Super Cheap Auto, said that it had short-changed workers by $8 million more than it had originally estimated, bringing the total to $61.2 million.
On Friday, cleaning and catering company Spotless admitted to underpaying workers $4 million.
The total wage theft uncovered this week: $94.2 million.