There are currently an estimated 40.3 million people enslaved globally,15,000 of which are in Australia. People living in modern slavery endure a range of exploitative practices, including human trafficking, compulsory labour, bonded labour, slavery, and forced marriage.
While media stories about modern slavery focus on these more shocking practices, labour rights experts emphasise that modern slavery practices occur on a continuum of exploitation. Instances of wage theft and excessive working hours can quickly deteriorate into modern slavery through threats and coercion.
If companies are serious about eradicating modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, they must start with ensuring that basic minimum labour standards are being met.
Efforts to reduce and eradicate modern slavery that don’t take a 'bigger picture' view of the issue and include the promotion of decent work will ultimately fail, leaving companies and investors exposed to significant risks.
The first modern slavery shareholder resolution
In 2019, ACCR filed the first ever modern slavery resolution globally, calling on Coles Ltd. to take active steps towards addressing endemic labour exploitation in their horticultural supply chains.
ACCR took the position that lead companies should take greater responsibility for mitigating modern slavery in their supply chains. The strong response to the resolution confirmed this position is shared by many investors.
Modern Slavery Reporting: only the first step
Since 2010, a number of countries, including Australia, have introduced modern slavery legislation. While there are significant differences between legislation in different jurisdictions, they all recognise that a company's responsibility for addressing modern slavery extends to its broader supply chain.
Following the commencement of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) (Commonwealth Act), larger Australian companies are now required to report annually on modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chain, and on their plans for managing those risks.
Companies with a revenue of at least AU$100 million must submit annual reports to a public register, maintained by the Australian government.
However, better reporting by companies is only one small step towards mitigating modern slavery. Decades of research has shown that proper workers’ rights due diligence requires formal avenues for worker involvement beyond whistleblower hotlines and participation in audits. Compliance will only be achieved through the adoption of worker-driven social responsibility initiatives.