Are Government’s Cracking The Whip on Slavery?

We all own technology. We all eat food. We all wear clothes. As a result, we all have slaves working for us. This is the ugly truth uncovered in my last article, where I discovered I have 59 slaves working for me.

While I don’t directly employ slaves, I do buy numerous consumer goods on a daily basis. Most large companies that provide these goods appear to be clean from modern slavery on the surface, but as soon as you dig a little deeper into the supply chain, the chains of modern slavery start to appear.

But you might not have to dig too deep, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimating that 40.3 million people are currently trapped in modern slavery around the world. That’s around 3 people in every 1,000!

What are foreign governments doing?

verb: abolish; 3rd person present: abolishes; past tense: abolished; past participle: abolished; gerund or present participle: abolishing
  1. formally put an end to (a system, practice, or institution).

The British Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, and freed more than 800,000 slaves. The United States was slower to legislate, with the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865. But as we have found, this formal abolishment has failed victims of modern slavery.

Since passing the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) in March 2015, the United Kingdom has been regarded as an international leader in the fight against slavery. The MSA introduced life sentences for traffickers, measures to protect people at risk of being enslaved, and made large companies scrutinise their supply chains for forced labour. This appears to be a move in the right direction, but the MSA falls short on numerous fronts.

Firstly, while the official guide states that reporting should not be confined to first-tier suppliers, it does not provide circumstances in which activities of a corporate group are to be considered. So basically, companies can stop ‘looking’ at any level of the supply chain they deem suitable.

The second major shortfall is that the UK government didn’t actually set a layout for specific content required in the modern slavery statements. Instead, section 4.2 of the guideindicates that it is ‘up to organisations how they present information in the statement and how much detail they provide’.  The guide merely states that organisations must include all steps they have taken and that statements should be ‘credible and accurate’ (section 2.3 and 1.6).

This leads us to the third major downfall; an organisation can even make a statement that it has taken no steps to address human trafficking and slavery (as long as this is accurate), and still satisfy the reporting requirements without repercussions. Unless consumers are actively looking at companies’ statements to weed out offenders, this act does little to improve transparency in the supply chain. So, the government is basically relying on companies to look thoroughly and be truthful about the findings. Not surprisingly, studies reveal a third (31%) of supply chain mangers admitting they do not think their businesses are taking appropriate steps for reporting. With this insight, it’s not hard to believe that the majority of companies would rather not reveal their connections to modern slavery.

What about the Australian government?

At the start of the year, the 2018 Global Slavery Index reported Australia as the eighth largest consumer of products affected by modern slavery, and one of 12 countries not doing enough to prevent it. So, what did Australia do in response?

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London during April, stating that Australia would be a pioneer of the issue.

“The Australian government will shortly introduce modern slavery legislation that will contain reporting requirements for Australia’s largest businesses to raise awareness about the scourge of modern slavery,” – Julie Bishop

That’s great optics Julie, but the proposed Australian legislation appears weaker than our U.K. counterparts on some fronts. Notably, the annual turnover threshold for businesses required to report is AUD$100m, compared to the U.K.’s much lower £36m. How many businesses are lucky enough to produce these turnovers? Only 3000 of the 2,551,778 businesses registered in Australia. That’s barley scraping the surface at only 0.12%

If that isn’t disappointing enough, there are also no penalties for Australian companies who do not comply with reporting requirements, other than the “naming and shaming” of companies on a public register.

One step in the right direction is that the Australian government has committed $3.6m to establishing a “modern slavery business engagement unit” to be housed within the Department of Home Affairs. The unit will advise Australian businesses on the best way to address slavery in their supply chains and operations.

Academics and non-government organisations have stressed that although businesses are essential in identifying and tackling modern slavery, these existing laws could be used more effectively to regulate workplaces, report on and prosecute cases of slavery and trafficking.

So, with government laws failing to crack the whip on modern slavery, maybe it’s time we as consumers take matters into our own hands. Stay tuned for my next article, where we will explore business initiatives to reduce our slavery footprints.

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