The Never-Ending Links to Modern Slavery: Businesses & Consumers

**This is article 3/3 in a modern slavery series**

Australia has long been known as the land of opportunity: a country in which citizens can earn a decent living, enjoy the chance to better themselves and participate in shaping their community. While this is the case for many of us, The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are still 15,000 victims of modern slavery living within Australia. That’s an eye-opening 1 slavery victim for every 1666 Aussies in the land of opportunity we call home. You can imagine my shock when I discovered I have 59 slaves working for me alone!


Australia has recently responded to these figures by introducing a Modern Slavery Bill 2018 that is currently before the House of Representatives. However, the shortcomings of this legislation suggests the use of modern slavery as ‘political click bait’, highlighting the need for businesses and consumers to holistically tackle to modern slavery.

The Value of Slavery in Global Value Chains

Modern slavery in Australian businesses is a small tip of a much larger iceberg. Slavery instead tends to operate in the hidden form of complex global value chains (GVCs) that are governed by powerful multinational corporations (MNCs). It doesn’t take a genius to understand that these MNCs benefit from outsourcing low-value or risky activities to minimise transaction costs, whilst reducing risk and liabilities.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that subsequent MNC contractors involved in slavery develop a keen understanding of what is possible and what is not in the operating country. Sadly, this knowledge is often used to exploit the cracks in institutional environments, allowing modern slavery to thrive in MNCs.

The question arises: Do MNCs even have the capability of fully governing labour standards throughout their GVCs?


Even MNCs that are known for behaving responsibly and ethically acknowledge their “…inability to effectively monitor their entire supply chains”. However, some academics argue that this reasoning seeks to downplay the role corporations play in shaping market conditions in which suppliers produce their goods.

The case of Nestle

Nestle, a parent company of more than 2,000 brands in 189 countries, was praised in 2015 when it publicly admitted to discovering slavery in its supply chains. Nestle commissioned global non-profit Verite to investigate six seafood production sites in Thailand. The report found workers from Cambodia and Myanmar had been lured to Thailand, often under false pretences, then forced to work in dangerous and violent conditions. Among some of the issues was the selling and trading of workers, the use of debt-bondage, chaining workers to restrict movement, and the use of illicit substances to keep workers awake to increase productivity.

“We met with men who had been enslaved on fishing boats for six or eight years at a time, subject to horrendous violence… Men who had seen fellow crew members who were too ill to work thrown over the side [of the boat]” – Nick Grono, CEO of the Freedom Fund on RN Breakfast Radio

Following these findings, Nestle published a Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Report in 2016 to identify necessary steps and actions required to ensure human rights standards are met within their numerous supply chains. However in 2017 a report from the Fair Labour Association, commissioned by Nestle, uncovered more evidence of slavery – this time, the use of child labour in their cocoa supply chains.

Businesses can play a major role in either facilitating modern slavery or eradicating it.

It is evident that MNCs DO have the capability of governing labour standards throughout their GVCs, as long as they are willing to be accept the implications of uncovering modern slavery and invest in auditing their supply chains.

Read More: If you are interested in a detailed review of modern slavery statements by Nike, ASOS and other major consumer brands alike, I highly recommend you check out this article.


What can we do as consumers?

Question time: What do electronics, garments, fish, rice and cocoa have in common?

Answer: They are Australia’s top 5 imported products most at risk of having connections to modern slavery.

Let’s face it… that wasn’t a full 10-point question, and I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to most of you. So how can we use this knowledge to our advantage to reduce our slavery footprint? Let take a look at our two biggest culprits: electronics and garments.


This is a tough one to get us started, but let’s look at the facts. Almost 90% of Australians own a smartphone, and almost 40% are expected to upgrade in the next year. With the number of smartphone users rapidly growing, that’s a minimum of 8.5 million smartphone purchases next year alone.

Considering this is one of the most at risk products of modern slavery (partially due to the use of the ‘conflict mineral’ tantalum), perhaps we need to reconsider our need for the newest, coolest gadgets. But we all know the realities of planned obsolescence, so maybe it’s time weplan ahead and purchase electronics with replaceable parts to reduce our ever-growing footprints.

Researching ethical electronics companies is also a logical tactic to reduce your slavery footprint; however with more than 50 potential supply chain links involved in making one device, it may not be as effective.


The below image illustrates garments imported from China posing the highest risk of modern slavery connections. Maybe it’s time we all start prioritising checking those ‘Made In …’ labels over price and appearance and boycotting products that don’t meet our self-imposed slavery reduction criteria.

The fashion industry is highly responsive to consumer demands, so researching culprits and making our voices heard is sure to spark a change. Ethical sourcing and manufacturing is a changing consumer demand already recognised by Australian fashion label Spell & The Gypsy Collective, who identified unsafe work practices in their initial Balinese manufacturing site and responded by relocating and closely auditing their supply chains.

MNCs like Nestle have the power and resources to actively scrutinise their supply chains and expose modern slavery; but we as consumers also hold significant power to push demand for supply chain transparency from a bottom up approach. Let’s stand up and make that change sooner rather than later.


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