Outsourcing modern slavery
5 September 2022 at 3:25 pm
The Australian government needs to remove slave labour from our supply chains, writes Mark Cubit.
Five years ago, legislation aimed at eradicating modern slavery passed through several western democracies, including Australia.
Recognising the general principle that modern slavery – from human trafficking, to forced labour, to bonded debt, to forced marriage and child labour – is not only repugnant, but alive and well, legislation was drafted in Australia with the intention of ending the practice in our region.
There were caveats. Compliance and reporting costs were viewed as burdensome and, fairly, possibly not relevant to a lot of Australian businesses. In the New South Wales legislation, thresholds were introduced into the legislation so that businesses with less than $50 million in annual turnover were not required to report on their supply chains.
Governments of all sizes had to purge their massive supply chains of proscribed labour practices with no $50 million threshold, although amendments to apply the legislation to seasonal agricultural workers were defeated in parliament.
While the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, it would appear that you can drive a Mac truck through the sizeable loopholes in the legislation.
In February, the Human Rights Law Centre produced a report Paper Promises that evaluated the impact of the legislation. In four sectors ripe with exploitative practices – the garment industry in China, rubber gloves in Malaysia, seafood in Thailand, and fresh produce from Australia – it found amongst that 77 per cent of companies failed to comply with basic reporting requirements.
The legislation is barely scraping the surface. Action on Poverty reports in Timor-Leste, 21 years after its first democratically held elections, Timorese women and girls from rural areas are lured to the capital with promises of legitimate jobs or education and are forced into prostitution or domestic servitude. Timorese families may send their children into bonded domestic or agricultural labour to repay debts.
Foreign migrant women are vulnerable to sex trafficking in Timor-Leste, while men and boys from Burma, Cambodia and Thailand are forced to work on fishing boats in Timorese waters and under inhumane conditions. AoP works with local NGO Pradet which provides temporary safe accommodation, counselling and health care for people who have been trafficked to Timor Leste.
And just this week the ABC reported on 13 workers being exploited through debt bondage and violence by a third-party business called Brightway to produce gloves on behalf of Australian company Ansell. An outsourcing of exploitation that is presumably done in order to avoid the $50 million reporting trigger.
If hundreds of workers can be exploited and under-resourced NGOs on the ground know about exploitative labour practices, why isn’t this information being fed back to a government body in Australia for action?
The current legislation is in danger of becoming a useless fig-leaf that leads us to believe such practices are being rooted out when in fact no one is looking.
Instead of the passive mechanism of report backs on supply chains and labour practices from companies – most of which evidently aren’t bothering to comply – what we need to root out this practice is a proactive cop on the beat, a body to which cases of exploitation can be reported and which is then given the power to investigate those cases and to issue legal punishments.
If this type of exploitation is a case of market failure, it is incumbent on all levels of government to right it and to enact legislation that succeeds and upholds human dignity and rights.