Leveraging the combined power of government and business in combatting modern slavery

  • Articles and op-ed

Many people regard slavery as a relic from our distant past and an issue that our modern civilisation has addressed and overcome. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case and it is an unacceptable fact that modern slavery is rampant – the Global Slavery Index estimates the number of people in slavery-like conditions at 45.8 million. Over half of these are in our region. 

Many people would be shocked to discover that no country, including our own, is immune. The Walk Free Foundation has estimated that as many as 4300 people may be enslaved in Australia. 

There is something particularly offensive about the idea of modern slavery – the notion that in this day and age one person could exercise a right of ownership over another, of servitude, forced labour, debt bondage and forced marriage. 

Slavery touches us all. It is in the supply chains of our most commonly used commodities – clothing, electronics, canned food and more. As consumers of these products, we may all be unwittingly complicit in these crimes. 

The International Labour Organisation estimates that forced labour generates annual profits of $150 billion - a massive profit made at human expense. It highlights the moral imperative to end modern slavery, and affirms that it is only in partnership with business that governments can curtail this abhorrent trade in human misery. 

There is a growing sense of commercial and reputational risk for businesses found profiteering from exploitation and coercion, generating a ‘race to the top’ in terms of labour practices. Companies already addressing these issues recognise the commercial benefit working to ethical standards. The current momentum is akin to the pressure created some years ago for business to adopt responsible standards of occupational work, health and safety for their employees. 

Australian businesses have shown a strong desire for deeper engagement on these issues. This was evident through the submissions that businesses made to the current Federal 

Parliamentary inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. The role of business is further emphasised in the Turnbull Government’s recent announcement of proposed legislation that will make it a requirement for large businesses to report annually on their actions to address modern slavery. An extensive consultation process will provide an important opportunity for the business community to help design a reporting requirement that is simple, sensible and as effective as possible. It will also ensure that the proposed reporting requirement meets community expectations.

Australia cannot tackle this issue alone and regional action is imperative. Today in Perth, together with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, I will launch the world’s first regional business-government partnership to address modern slavery. 

The Bali Process Government and Business Forum will bring together ministers and business leaders from 45 member countries of the Bali Process. The business delegation will be co-chaired by Mr Andrew Forrest AO, Chairman of Fortescue Metals Group and Mr Eddy Sariaatmadja, founder and Chairman of Emtek, for Australia and Indonesia respectively. Andrew and Eddy have demonstrated their commitment to corporate responsibility and accountability, as well as sharing a history of generous philanthropy.

Business leaders throughout the Indo-Pacific and beyond are registered to attend, including Australia’s Wesfarmers, China’s JD.com, USA’s Walmart, Thai Union, Japan’s Mitsui & Co and New Zealand’s Icebreaker. These global companies are demonstrating a strong commitment to eradicate modern slavery in their supply chains.

Mr Forrest and Mr Sariaatmadja will bring a business-led work plan to the Forum, with proposals for addressing issues including the exploitation of migrant workers, the integrity of supply chains, and grievance and redress mechanisms. Business will develop the proposals into recommendations for government consideration in 2018. 

The Forum is a practical, action-orientated extension of Australia’s long and proud history of regional and global leadership on issues concerning people trafficking and related transnational crime. For more than a decade, Australia has been working with Southeast Asian countries to combat human trafficking, contributing funds and expertise over that period.  

It is vital that our region work together to develop a plan to finally relegate the scourge of slavery to the history books.

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