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 has become a major talking point in recent years.
Many of us are familiar with the statistics: 40.3 million people are a victim of modern slavery, half of which perform forced labour. While not uncontentious, these figures are now well-known thanks to the advocacy of public figures and politicians.
While the abuses described by the term modern slavery do sadly occur, there are reasons to suggest that modern slavery is being weaponised for political purposes.
The big invisible problem of modern slavery allows the global system of production – and its exploitative features – to continue relatively unopposed, it is a useful tool in trade wars, and it helps to control the borders.
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.
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”.
Following the United Kingdom in 2015, Australia introduced its Modern Slavery Act in 2018. The Government produced guidance documents to recognise that modern slavery sits on a continuum of exploitation and should not be addressed in isolation. It acknowledges that there is a spectrum of abuse and that it is not always clear at what point poor working practices and lack of health and safety awareness seep into instances of human trafficking, slavery or forced labour. The overarching aim of this special issue is to examine how exactly employment relationships can deteriorate into forms of labour exploitation and modern slavery. We set out to identify the key factors contributing to this process, to determine what approaches can reduce the risk of labour abuses occurring, and to discern novel ways to remediate exploitation once identified. We aim to create a better understanding of modern slavery and the employment relationship by establishing how and why workers may move along the continuum of labour exploitation.
25/09/2020 – Submission of abstracts to the guest editors
12/10/2020 – Confirmation/acceptance of abstract and invitation to submit full paper
31/01/ 2021 – Full paper submission for presentation at Symposium
02/2021 – Symposium in Sydney – alternatively a virtual symposium will be held
01/03/2021 – Full original papers to be submitted online to the JIR for peer review
28/10/2021 – Accepted papers to be finalised/submitted online to the JIR
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.
The Australian Government is developing a National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery 2020‑24, which builds on Australia’s current efforts under the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery 2015-2019. The Government published a Consultation Paper and provided the business community, civil society and academia to help co-design a 2020-24 Plan that will drive Australia’s efforts to combat modern slavery over the next five years. The submission by Justine Nolan and myself can be found below.
Our key recommendations:
The Government should bolster the Modern Slavery Act by introducing sanctions for non-compliance, mandate and provide guidance on human rights due diligence and by creating the post of National Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner;
The Government should “name and shame” entities that do not comply with the Modern Slavery Act, as well as entities that are found to have modern slavery in their supply chain;
The Government should update its procurement policies to follow international best-practice, and provide additional training to procurement officers;
The Government should leverage the impact of public spending by creating a procurement connected policy concerning modern slavery;
The Government should prepare for an increase in modern slavery survivors being referred to authorities by creating adequate support structures based on international best practice;
The Government should include two additional goals which focus on the nexus between climate change and gender with modern slavery.
The Government should facilitate the creation of decent jobs, address wage theft, remove barriers for organised labour, and increase resources for the Fair Work Ombudsman;
The Government should create an anti-slavery helpline and geographically plot calls to reveal hotspots across Australia.