Mark Sneddon & Pete Mulherin

Modern slavery rarely uses the shackles, whips, ships’ holds, and slave markets historically associated with the transatlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. Britain legislated to abolish slavery in 1833 after years of lobbying by William Wilberforce and others. But slavery has not gone away. As far as the world may have come since the UK’s Abolition Act of 1833, and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) over 21 million people remain in forced labour worldwide. Over 11.5 million of these are in Australia’s neighbourhood, the Asia-Pacific. This modern slavery generates a staggering US$51 billion in our region alone; a figure which explains the slave-economy’s enduring existence.

Modern slavery now comes in many forms such as forced labour, bonded labour, illegal immigrant blackmailed labour, and sex trade labour. It could affect the person assembling the smart-phones we use, or helping to make one of its components or digging the rare minerals from the ground that it needs to function.  Or slavery may affect people working in the supply-chain of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, or the building products used in our homes.

As just one example, in 2014 an investigation by The Guardian discovered that the world’s biggest prawn farming company, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods in Thailand, was buying fishmeal for its farms that was in some cases sourced from forced labour. Companies that bought the prawns included Costco, Walmart, Carrefour, Aldi, and Tesco. After the revelations, CP Foods and the supermarkets acknowledged the slavery and lack of transparency in their supply-chains, and promised to work with the Thai government to address the forced labour and human trafficking involved in the seafood industry. Considering the complexities of today’s supply-chains, and the demand for ever cheaper goods and services, it does not seem unrealistic to imagine that many if not most Australians have used or consumed products or services indirectly connected with slavery or human trafficking at some point. So how are we to deal with it?

In 2015 the United Kingdom passed the Modern Slavery Act to deal with some aspects of this insidious modern practice. The Act included measures to make UK companies investigate their supply-chains (domestic and foreign) for evidence of modern slavery practices and then publicly report their findings and what they would do about them.

On February 15, 2017 Attorney-General George Brandis signalled that Australia might follow suit. A ‘good-news’ story that did not get the media coverage it deserved, Brandis has asked the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to inquire into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. Almost simultaneously, but halfway across the world, Hollywood superstar Ashton Kutcher was giving an impassioned (and much more publicised) testimony to the US Senate hearing, Ending Modern Slavery: Building on Success. On March 8 the US Senate unanimously passed the End Modern Slavery Initiative, putting America closer to a Modern Slavery Act.  These are but the latest developments in a worldwide movement to fight modern slavery that is slowly but surely gaining momentum.

Back home, in addition to Brandis’ request, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement is also looking into human trafficking and slavery. In its forthcoming report, the inquiry would do well to give support to a Modern Slavery Act, in order to combat human trafficking and forced labour through greater transparency around international supply-chains.

At first glance, Australia’s anti-slavery laws seem sufficiently strong, since the Commonwealth Criminal Code criminalises slavery and includes in its definition of slavery, a ‘commercial transaction involving a slave … whether within our outside Australia.’ But catching and successfully prosecuting acts committed overseas is not easy.

The most obvious obstacle to the law as it currently stands is enforceability; it’s hard to imagine Thailand, for example, allowing the Australian Federal Police to roam inside their jurisdiction looking at supply-chains and gathering evidence. Forced labour is usually found in developing nations where investigation and enforcement resources are stretched and corruption is common. It should come as no surprise then, that resources for addressing slavery on the ground in those countries may be limited. But for Australia, with its wealth and stability, there can be no excuse. Furthermore, as consumers of the products that may have involved slavery, it is incumbent upon us to act. The question, is ‘how?’

Buying Fairtrade and similar ‘slavery-free’ certified products is a good start, but what percentage of consumers look for, understand and make their buying decisions based on the logo on packaging? If real change is to occur, the public visibility of supply-chain slavery needs to be raised and Australian companies and consumers encouraged to take action to remove slave labour from those supply-chains.

Amendments to the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 during its passage were pushed by concerned citizens to increase ‘Transparency In the Supply-Chains’ of UK companies (TISC). The Act requires companies operating in the UK, with an annual turnover of at least £36 million to make public a ‘slavery and human trafficking statement’ each year. The statement must show ‘the steps [the company] has taken to ensure there is no slavery or trafficking in its supply-chains or its own business, or (state) that it has taken no such steps.’ The current sanction is public opinion and customers shifting their business. As long as companies provide a statement, they have met their obligations under the Act. If the statement or the company’s response to what it finds is judged deficient, consumers and civil society at large become responsible for pressuring the company to investigate further or take stronger action. Customers who are not satisfied with the company’s approach can take their business elsewhere.

A civil society project has made over 18,000 of these reports public – see TISC Report.

In the first year of operation, the reports are of variable quality and detail but social pressure is growing on companies to take the issue seriously and shine the light into their supply-chain. While the legislation as it stands could never ensure that supply-chains are slavery-free, it is a good first step. The power a UK (or Australian) company has over the firms and practices in its supply-chain will vary with the size of the company, the importance of the business relationship and how far away the modern slavery issue is in the supply-chain.

Australia should enact a Modern Slavery Act with TISC obligations on larger Australian companies as a first step to making it part Australia’s responsibility to identify and deal with slavery in the supply-chains to Australian companies. Transparency and public opinion may or may not be enough to change supply-chain habits and there may be a need to strengthen the law over time.

But greater transparency and public reporting about slavery in supply-chains is a very good place to start. In a world of networked communications, public internet, social media and big data and anti-slavery civil society organisations like International Justice Mission, a larger Australian company should be able to readily investigate the existence of slave labour practices a reasonable distance up its supply-chain. It is high-time that Australian company managers asked these questions and reported the answers so they and their customers can know whether their products and services derive from slavery practices, and they and their customers can then take informed action. Australia needs a Modern Slavery Act.