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?
Prominent Australian retailers been caught out again for “unsavoury” behaviour during the coronavirus pandemic – including asking for discounts and pushing back orders from struggling suppliers overseas.
Kmart has backflipped on its request for a 30 per cent discount it forced on its Bangladeshi suppliers, but is still enforcing tight turnarounds.
Mosaic Brands, which owns Crossroads, Millers, Noni B and more, has told its suppliers, also in Bangladesh, that it won’t be meeting some of its payments for eight months, according to the ABC.
Mosaic was called out early in the pandemic for its pushy sales techniques, peddling hand sanitiser and face masks to shoppers to capitalise on the panic-buying surge.
The behaviour is nothing short of bullying, business ethics expert Martijn Boersma said.
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.
Underpayment is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in Australia, with certain industries and sub-sets of workers more affected than others. Given the increasing prevalence of wage theft, workers can become resigned to accept employment below the minimum wage due to expectations that underpayment is unavoidable. While the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) plays a key role in identifying and rectifying underpayments, increased funding is required to allow it to effectively uncover breaches. Both mandatory and voluntary supply chain measures can play a key role to help target the issue of underpayment. Our submission recommends new legislation be passed to better regulate labour standards and the gig economy, strengthening enforcement of existing regulations.
“Justine Nolan and Martijn Boersma, academics, have provided a sobering book, Addressing Modern Slavery (NewSouth Books). In its current form, they say, slavery is less about the ownership of people than their exploitation through deceit, intimidation, and coercion. People from under-developed countries are the most likely victims, often tricked into working on farms or in mines, because paying them effectively nothing is more cost-effective than using machinery. Nolan and Boersma also look at the situation in Australia, where there have been many cases of illegal immigrants or others of dubious legal status being exploited. They argue that legitimate businesses have an obligation to monitor contractors and supply chains to identify cases of exploitation, and outline how it can be done. But the nightmare stories stay in the reader’s mind. This is an awful book, and a very important one.”
Earlier this year Justine Nolan, Laurie Berg and myself supported a shareholder resolution filed by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, which was heard at the Coles Annual General Meeting on 13 November 2019.
The resolution asking the supermarket to reassess its supply chain policies to reduce reliance on third-party audits, and to consult more with unions. At the meeting, workers from the supermarket’s farmer suppliers challenged Coles’ executives over its ethical sourcing policy, asking the retailer to work with unions to ensure workers are fairly treated and paid. The resolution was supported by 12.8 per cent of shareholders.
Coles recently signed memorandum of understanding with three major Australian unions as a sign of the retailer’s willingness to work with unions. Unfortunately this does not include the National Union of Workers (who recently merged with United Voice to form the United Workers Union). This is a missed opportunity for Coles to embrace Worker-Driven Social Responsibility.
The open letter to Coles and Woolworths was covered by the New Daily and the supermarkets have written a response to our letter. The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), who have been engaging both supermarkets since 2017, have prepared a response to the supermarkets. You can find the response here:
Justine Nolan, Laurie Berg and Martijn Boersma have supported a shareholder resolution by ACCR that will be heard at the Coles AGM on the 13th November 2019. You can help by calling on UniSuper to support the resolution. All you need to do is send them a message here. You can use the sample text below, copy and paste, or write your own.
The Australian cleaning industry has come under scrutiny for being at risk of modern slavery in a new book which draws links between consumers, business and government, and an estimated 40 million people who are modern-day slaves.
Addressing Modern Slavery explains the global conditions that have allowed slavery to thrive to the point “where there are more slaves today than ever before in human history”.
Authors Associate Professor Justine Nolan from UNSW Sydney and Dr Martijn Boersma from UTS describe well-known examples from overseas, such as women in apparel sweatshops and children in brick kilns – but also examples that are closer to home.
The authors include a submission from a former cleaner to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia who noted exploitation in the cleaning industry is very common.
When the Bill that became the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) was introduced into the federal parliament, it was accompanied by a grim message: two centuries after the abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom, it is estimated that there are twenty-five million victims of modern slavery worldwide. It also came with a bracing if Panglossian promise: that the Modern Slavery Act would ‘transform’ the way large companies in Australia do business, and drive a ‘race to the top’. Published a year after the introduction of this legislation, Addressing Modern Slavery is a timely reflection on the pervasiveness of modern slavery in global supply chains – and on the role of the state, business, and other actors in combating this serious and complex problem.