Slavery has existed in different forms for a very long time. Despite being outlawed in most countries in the 1800s, slavery persists. The Walk Free Foundation, estimates 40 million people worldwide are trapped in modern slavery today, with 71% estimated to be women and girls. The foundation says just under two thirds of these people are in the Asia-Pacific region. So what is modern slavery? What are governments doing about it and what we can do to change things?
What is Modern Slavery?
Modern slavery is an umbrella term, used to describe a range of extreme labour rights abuses, including slavery, servitude, human trafficking and forced or compulsory labour.
According to Antislavery.org, someone is said to be in slavery if they are:
- Forced to work – through coercion, or mental or physical threat;
- Owned or controlled by an ’employer’, through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse;
- Dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’;
- Physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.
So nowadays slavery is less about people owning other people (although it still exists) and more about being controlled, exploited and prevented from leaving.
Globalisation and the demand for cheap labour means supply chains have become more complex and opaque, and so modern slavery is often hidden. But there is some good news, as governments worldwide are starting to take action.
How Are Governments Tackling Modern Slavery?
Laws in a number of countries have created legal requirements that businesses make public statements about how they work to avoid modern slavery in their supply chain. The laws require transparency but don’t directly require companies to take action. Despite this there is evidence that they have contributed to change in corporate practices. Below is a sample of current legal requirements and what we know about their impact.
Right now the Australian parliament is considering adopting a similar law. Many anti-slavery groups are concerned that the law is not as good as it should be. Read on to see what’s good and weak about the current laws, and if you are in Australia what you can do to influence Parliament to strengthen the law.
The Commonwealth Government is considering a draft Modern Slavery Act for Australia. The Act is similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act. It will require Australian companies over a threshold size to make annual statements on steps taken to eradicate modern slavery within their organisation and supply chains.
Roughly 4,000 people are thought to be working in slave-like conditions in Australia in industries such as agriculture, fishing, sex work, mining, construction, farming, cleaning services and even in diplomatic residences! And there are much larger numbers of people working in modern slavery in others countries who are making the products we use on a daily basis, with clothing being one of the worst affected industries.
The Australian Modern Slavery Act will apply to businesses making more than $100 million a year – around 3,000 companies – and their annual anti-slavery statements will have to be signed off at board level, to be published within six months of the publication of their annual reports.
But campaigners such as Be Slave Free and Stop the Traffik are calling for the Bill to be strengthened. A key demand is that the government appoint an Anti-Slavery Commissioner to provide independent oversight, with powers to monitor laws and hold business and the Government accountable.
Be Slave Free is also asking for the following actions:
- Penalties for non-compliance – as it stands the bill does not impose any penalties on companies who fail to report slavery risks in their supply chain.
- A requirement that the annual reporting requirement be extended to large organisations doing business in Australia – not just Australian companies.
- The creation of a publicly accessible central repository of all modern slavery statements filed each year.
As a Be Slave Free supporter, Good On You echos this call to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act. We believe the Act needs to reflect the values of Australians, and provide an example for other countries to follow.
Parliament will consider the draft Act in November, so if you live in Australia and you believe that freedom is a right for all humans contact your Senators and have your say.
In the UK
The UK introduced a Modern Slavery Act in 2015. In 2016, it was estimated that there were 11,700 victims of modern slavery in the United Kingdom, with millions more forced into unacceptable working conditions in the global supply chains of UK businesses. The Act requires businesses with a turnover of £36m or more, and who trade in the UK, to report annually on the actions they are taking to eliminate modern slavery from their supply chains. It also establishes the office of the Independent Anti Slavery Commissioner who leads the effort to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking.
The UK Act significantly increases transparency. For the first time hundreds of businesses are making at least some information available about what their business structures and supply chains look like, and how they undertake due diligence in an effort to eradicate slavery in their supply chains.
The Act has demonstrated it can drive change first by making modern slavery a mainstream issue that’s widely discussed by everyone from shoppers to senior corporate management and second by driving positive action by companies. According to a report by the Ethical Trading Initiative and Hult International Business School, statements required by the Act show a number of companies are developing or revising existing policies and due diligence processes to address modern slavery. Examples include new and revised risk assessments, staff training and supplier contracts. The same report found that in the year since the UK Act came into force, CEO engagement with modern slavery has doubled and companies are collaborating more with peers, NGOs and multi-stakeholder initiatives.
In the United States
The California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, requires companies doing business in California to disclose their efforts to combat human trafficking in their own supply chains. But as with other Acts, this doesn’t require companies to take action to address any issues. The Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015 would strengthen in the California Act. It has been introduced into the California House of Representatives, but not yet passed into law.
There are a number of existing international standards and emerging national laws, based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, that emphasise the role of corporate due diligence in identifying and avoiding risks to human rights, including the risk of modern slavery.
Protection of human rights is written into the EU’s constitution and the EU has been taking steps to to combat abuses in some sectors such as garments, conflict minerals and palm oil.
According do Antislavery.org, a common European standard for all companies trading in the EU is needed in order to solve the systemic issue of modern slavery. And the momentum is growing: in September 2017 the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for corporate due diligence for companies operating within and outside the EU, and eight EU national parliaments have called for legislation at a European-wide level to harmonise rules and standards. The EU has the potential to lead the way on tackling slavery in global supply chains and put in place regulation that will have the widest global impact.
What else can we do?
We can exercise our rights as citizens to make our voices heard by pressing our governments to consider the issue seriously, pass anti-modern slavery laws and strengthen the existing ones.
Shopping responsibly is another way we can influence companies to address modern slavery:
- Choose to buy from fashion labels that trace their supply chains, use certified Fair Trade materials or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified cotton, have signed pledges to avoid cotton at risk of being sourced from countries with well known use of forced labour or voluntarily report their efforts to address slavery.
- Use the free Good On You app to find brands that are working hardest to respect their workers’ rights. With Good On You, you can search for and shop from brands that are committed to providing their workers with fair pay and comfortable working conditions.
We all have the power power to influence brands to make more ethical choices when it comes to production. This belief is at the heart of everything we do here at Good On You! We all hope to live in a future free from slavery, and you can help shape that future.