It might be easy to imagine, especially in Australia, that slavery is a thing of the past. But an estimated 15,000 people were living in conditions of modern slavery here in 2016, through forced marriage and labour, sexual exploitation, debt bondage and human trafficking – exploitation that disproportionately affects women, children, asylum seekers and migrants. Globally, in that same year, 40.3 million victims were being abused.
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 is actually a relatively unhelpful term,” Boersma says. “It is a non-legal definition that incorporates a whole lot of different labour abuse, ranging from people being exploited in factories, all the way through to people being trapped in domestic servitude.”
This is not, Boersma is quick to clarify, the same as wage theft or poor working conditions, under which employees are taken advantage of but are free to leave. “These are elements on the spectrum of exploitation between decent work and modern slavery,” he says.
While the prevalence of local modern slavery should trouble all Australians, Boersma’s key focus is on those trapped in exploitative employment overseas. “The emphasis in our programs is people performing their labour under the threat of punishment,” he says. “They can earn some money, but it’s usually a pittance, or it’s unpaid labour, and they don’t have the capacity to leave that employment relationship.”
For the most part, our role in the ongoing servitude of non-Australians is indirect: it happens through global supply chains.
Australian businesses have a responsibility to put an end to modern slavery
In his book Addressing Modern Slavery, co-authored by Dr Justine Nolan, Boersma reports that the OECD estimates more than half of goods manufactured worldwide are “intermediate goods” – used as part of the production of other goods. The OECD also estimates that 60% of global trade depends on the supply chains of just 50 corporations, which rely on a hidden workforce of 116 million people while only directly employing 6% of their workers.
For Australian businesses, these types of supply chains make it difficult to know under what conditions people are working. Without the right expertise, Australian companies run the risk of supporting modern slavery through their supply chains, deliberately or inadvertently engaging manufacturers and distributors who are profiting from the suffering of others.
“Especially in an international context and for large companies,” Boersma says, “it becomes incredibly difficult to keep oversight over what happens.”
Anti-slavery legislation is in place in Australia. The Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018 requires Australian entities with consolidated revenue over $100m to prepare annual modern slavery statements, and companies across the country are incorporating, or seeking to incorporate, modern slavery into their policies.
But they are not always doing so successfully. Research by Walk Free found, for example, that only 31% of statements produced by the garment industry met the requirements for approval and mandatory criteria.
Boersma’s own analysis found that companies addressed only 59% of the mandatory criteria on average. His project reported that 77% of companies surveyed had failed to comply with all mandatory reporting requirements, and 52% had failed to identify modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains.
A new course equips graduates with job-ready skills to reduce harm
Boersma says Notre Dame’s new course, which is delivered online at postgraduate level, will give graduates skills to mitigate these shortfalls and minimise Australia’s contribution to global slavery.
“It’s developed so graduates can go into the job market with this skill set where they assist companies that are required to report under the Modern Slavery Act. They will be able to say: ‘This is how you can identify risks of modern slavery in your supply chain and operations, and here are ways to remediate that.’”
A clear understanding of the risks and impact will be a real asset to businesses, as part of what Boersma describes as an “increasingly necessary” skill set.
“Australia’s Modern Slavery Act has only been in existence since 2018,” Boersma says. “A lot of the research – including mine – focuses on the shortcomings of companies and their statements. There is so much room for improvement, and these entities can really benefit from employing graduates who have intimate knowledge of the act, and of modern slavery, the risk factors, and how they can be addressed.”
With the development of frameworks including the UN Sustainable Development Goals, people and businesses are increasingly encouraged to think about global issues as the sum of many working parts.
“Companies are looking at any sustainability issue, but especially modern slavery, as something holistic,” Boersma says. “Anyone working in any part of an organisation can benefit from understanding what modern slavery risks are and how they might be contributing to them. That knowledge might help them mitigate and remediate any negative impact that they might be having.”
For Boersma, the success of the course will be graduates who understand what civil society expects, and who are confident to push this critical agenda at every level of their organisations. “You have to talk to everyone. You have to say: what are the kinds of questions we need to be asking?”
This article was originally published in The Guardian.