After the introduction of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018, there are now thousands of Modern Slavery Statements published on the Australian government’s Modern Slavery Register. At the  Informed 365 webinar on last week on 5August 2021, I discussed some of the trends, patterns and learning outcomes to be gleaned from the statements, alongside Eleanor Pahlow from the Australian Border Force and Nathan Kingston from Ethical Merch Company.

Here are my 10 key points about Modern Slavery Statements so far:

1. Confusion: There is one common theme that has come through strongly, across the majority of Modern Slavery Statements so far, and that is confusion as to who the audience actually is. Some statements are written as marketing documents (“look how great we are!”), some seem to be written for investors, some are cold, clear, clinical legal statements, some are so minimal as to be pure compliance pieces (like a sulky teenager being forced to say “sorry”, they come across as “I don’t want to have to do this, but I will’), as well as everything in between. So I’ll clarify that yes, these statements are legal, reporting requirements; of course there are elements of compliance.  But they are also an opportunity to describe simply and clearly where the risks of harm to people through modern slavery lie in operations and supply chains, what you’re doing about those risks, and how you know if your actions are effective or not – if you say it clearly enough the statement can be read by your staff, your investors, your suppliers, your clients, your family and friends, the Australian Border Force, or anyone looking at the register. One good example of this is Blackmores – the natural health company – which produced a statement that everyone can understand, from the risks to actions to priorities – in simple, clear language. [All good examples and those not so good can be found on the Modern ?Slavery Register]

2. Photos and other images: A follow up point to make here is about the use of photos and other images in statements. By all means use a graphic to help explain your organisation’s structure. But the number of glossy advertising images of happy people seems askew when you’re talking about the 40.3 million people in modern slavery. A particular shout-out to the organisation with glossy images of products, which lists these products as one of the sector’s big risk areas, and then says they are working with suppliers to “reduce exposure to utilisation of these products”.  Huh? Or the organisation that highlighted that 71 per cent of victims of modern slavery are women and girls, but then ONLY put photos of men pointing at things throughout their statement. The 1950s called and want their advertising campaign back! Think carefully about whether you need images, why and, if so, which ones?

3.Collaboration: There are multiple collaborations and consortia are coming together to look at shared approaches – from the Property Council of Australia to energy procurement specialists, or from healthcare experts to mining and resources – and these are really healthy ways for organisations to get together to look at the opportunities across their sector; opportunities to do better, opportunities to use their leverage to improve supply chains and work with shared suppliers, opportunities to look at data from across their sector not just their own supply chains (through technology experts such as Informed 365), opportunities to learn and provide learning resources, and opportunities to look at the gaps, the weaknesses, the interstices, and work out what partnerships will aid further collaboration. Woolworths Group had a whole page of partnerships, for example, which I commend. As I’ve said before, partnership is the new leadership.

4. Clarity: There are so many statements now visible whose authors, quite simply, didn’t read the question. It’s like you’re back at school again, and have turned over the exam paper, and there’s that flood of adrenalin when you recognise a question on a topic you know something about, so you just write everything you know on the topic – rather than actually answering the question. If the question is “How do you assess the effectiveness of what you’re doing to assess and address Modern Slavery?”, the answer is not “We’re doing a really good job’. It’s certainly not “our core values are a, b, c and d and… we will use those values in our dedication to comply with the Act” (direct quote), not least because I have no idea what that means. Just. Answer. The. Question. Even if your answer is brief.

5. Be realistic: There are a lot of Modern Slavery Statements now visible that illustrate quite how far we have to go – many organisations are just starting out and recognising that they don’t know, or yet understand, where the risks of harm to people really lie – but that’s a good thing. These are the organisations that are being honest, and for whom sector collaborations, and partnerships with NGOs and others, will provide benefit. I’m more worried by statements that say “we’re doing a terrific job” than I am by those that say “we reckon we’ve got a long way to go”, to be honest. An example of a good approach would be Stylecraft; it was great to see their voluntary statement that linked their human rights risk assessment to other social and environmental risk assessments, and their recognition of how far there is to go – so well done, keep looking at how all these pieces fit together, and don’t view human rights and modern slavery in isolation but as part of your organisation’s progress.

6.People: The best Modern Slavery Statements that I’ve read – without a doubt – are the ones that focus the reporting, the risks, and the statement – on people. The people within the organisation, in their operations, in their supply chains. The statements that focus on people – and the risk of harm to people – will get it right in the long term, and we’ll see those continuous improvements. The statements that focus on process (“look what a great process we have, look what great graphs we have, look what a great initiative we’ve set up”) are almost missing the point. I’ll call out ISPT, for example, for a terrific statement that is clearly about the people in their operations and supply chains – relatable, personable, people-centric – as well as identifying how much work they have to do.

7. Action: Case studies are invaluable ways of explaining what’s actually happening, sharing stories of successes and instances, and making the narrative about the people – so if you can, try to tell stories about the people in your supply chains, and build on them over time. Kathmandu has great examples from China and Vietnam, outlining some excellent initiatives, in their statement.

8.Change: It’s important to note that every organisation (and statement) needs to recognise the constant state of change, and rate of flux, in which we live – calling out the challenges of bushfires or downturns or COVID, for example – and the Cromwell Property Group had a whole page (“The year that was: COVID”) that set out the impacts to their operations and supply chains. Change is inevitable, so call it out clearly, and be prepared to re-assess and update your reporting around human rights.

9. Pathways for grievances: Looking ahead, we need to see more focus on grievance mechanisms (plural, not singular) with a mindset of “not only, but also”. Organisations shouldn’t just aim to have a hotline, or an email, or an online reporting mechanism, although those are good starting points, but a multitude of pathways, from internal processes to supplier mechanisms to real opportunities for the “voice of the worker” to be heard further through the supply chain (such as the opportunities offered by the Cleaning Accountability Framework) and that’s hard to achieve – we know it’s hard – so it deserves increasing focus over time.

10. Engagement: Finally, we need to see more attention on the value of increasing supplier engagement and education, talking to suppliers and subcontractors about:

  • What do you know – do you understand the basics of modern slavery?
  • What are you doing? And what are your suppliers doing? And theirs?
  • What policies, processes, clauses or contracts do you have in place?
  • Are you assessing the risks in your operations or supply chains? How?
  • What help, resources or materials do you need to help you improve?

There’s so much material already out there – from the Supply Chain Sustainability School, to Anti-Slavery Australia, to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre – so how can you connect suppliers and subcontractors to what they need?

Robin Mellon is chief executive officer of Better Sydney, project manager for the Property Council of Australia’s Modern Slavery Working Group and Supplier Platform, and NSW program adviser for Better Building Finance. And an EV nerd. See previous articles

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