The Australian – Book Review: Addressing Modern Slavery

addressing modern slavery the Australian

Review in the Weekend Australian. Full text below.

What do you think when you think of slavery? Ancient Greece, where no woman was a citizen and nor were the 30-40 per cent of the population it is guesstimated were slaves, propping up the rich in the democracy that was Athens? The 12-plus million ­Africans it is estimated were traded across the Atlantic to the New World between the mid-16th and mid-19th centuries? The millions more who were traded in the Muslim world?

Slavery did not exist only then. It continues to exist now.

Some 40.3 million people are enslaved around the world today, according to Justine Nolan and Martijn Boersma. Their new book, Addressing Modern Slavery, brings together historical anecdotes and qualitative and quantitative research about the situation today.

They also give Australia a central role in the global discussion “It has been easy to dismiss slavery as something that is not our problem,” they write. “Yet while lengthy supply chains often originate in remote places — factories, fields or mines — where labour abuses are endemic, modern slavery also occurs close to home … Modern slavery is a multi-dimensional issue that is often dismissed, underestimated or misunderstood.” The clothes we wear, the coffee we drink, the vegetables we eat, the gadgets we buy: all those things sourced from elsewhere, and even some things sourced here, may be the end product of such a supply chain.

We’re talking hiring under false pretences, impossible production targets, underpayment, abysmal living conditions, confiscation of passports, physical punishments, restriction of freedom either physically or via blackmail, and more. And then there is the horrific business model of sexual slavery.

Regular news stories inform us of the extent of wage withholding in Australia. In 2016-17, courts ordered dozens of Australian companies — including 7-11, Nando’s, Chemist Warehouse, Rockpool and the restaurants of MasterChef celebrity George Calombaris — to pay more than $4.8m in financial penalties for breaching the Fair Work Act. More recently, Sunglass Hut admitted to illegally underpaying 620 workers a total of $2.3m over six years. It will not be prosecuted after agreeing to pay a $50,000 “contrition” payment, apologise to workers, rectify underpayments and be subject to audits.

Less regular but more deadly are stories about worker conditions in Qatar, for example, as it rushes to complete sporting facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Rights groups have placed the death toll at 1200 already. A new law there last year allowed workers under the “kefala” system — the sponsorship mainly of construction and domestic workers to the Middle East — to leave the country without their employers’ permission. It also mandated that workers be given water in the desert heat. A month later, the Guardian reported that little had yet changed.

Activists have started addressing the clothing industry, too, where expensive designer brands are most likely to be manufactured by mostly women earning low wages for long hours in cramped conditions in developing countries or in China. In Bangladesh, for example, 3.5 million workers in 4825 garment factories earn 80 per cent of the country’s export revenue. More than 400 workers have died and thousands more have been injured in 50 major factory fires in recent years. The women, unrepresented by unions or protected by industrial legislation, had been locked in, unable to flee.

Some of these, such as the Australian examples, may be dismissed as “mere” theft, rather than slavery, though some of the conditions found in rural produce farming have approached it.

Football fans may be distressed to hear that outright slavery has been found in many contractual arrangements for stadium-building in Qatar, hence the law — another exercise in image-building, one would imagine, since it came years after the first reports on workers’ conditions began to trickle out.

Nolan and Boersma address two key questions. Why does slavery continue in the modern world centuries after it was outlawed, first locally, then in international law? And how does it feed into the chain of production of legitimate companies, even those with famous brands in high demand?

The exploitation of labour in the contemporary world, they write, has developed over time by adapting to shifts in economic and social conditions.

Some countries have been moved to legislate against such practices, though we hear little about the fate of their initiatives.

It is estimated that 136,000 slaves live in the UK and 15,000 in Australia. The UK passed a Modern Slavery Act in 2015; Australia passed one of the same name last year.

“Even after the introduction of modern slavery laws in some countries,” the authors write, “the fight against modern slavery remains largely dependent on corporate voluntarism and self-regulation.” Virtue-signalling is an awful sledge against genuine decency, but several well-known commercial entities have made little ­concrete progress after burnishing their image by promising to address ­­­the issue.

International rights agencies are setting goals to end the practice, but it is difficult to see how they will succeed in a world of ­nation-states, each with its own legal system and different legal takes on the subject.

Italian economist Loretta Napoleoni has written several books on what she calls the “rogue economy”, the international black market that has funded Islamist terrorism and war, among other things.

She tracked the Slavic sex slaves who flooded the West during the 1990s when the fall of communism in Eastern Europe threw unequipped populations into the world of free trade.

During a 2010 interview, she estimated some 27 million people were enslaved worldwide. If her figures and these authors’ are more or less correct, they represent a dramatic increase in slavery in the past decade.

Surprising details stick in the mind. During our 2010 conversation, Napoleoni made a financial comparison. A slave today, apparently, costs just one-tenth what a slave cost during the Roman Empire, in adjusted terms.

Knowing that slaves now are so much cheaper than they used to be when slavery was legal somehow only adds insult to injury.

Miriam Cosic is a journalist and author.

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