modern slavery solomon-hsu-518339

Modern slavery is an issue that’s been gaining visibility over the last few years in Australia following the work by many countries, including the UK, which introduced a modern slavery act in 2015 that started a radical change throughout organisations’ supply chains.

Why is this an issue, and what do we have to do about it?

Well, slavery is more widespread today than at any time in human history.

While the prevalence of modern slavery in Australia may seem low, there is a growing need for our property, construction and infrastructure organisations to be aware of the potential for modern slavery in their extended supply chains, understand the need for greater transparency, and work towards eradicating such human rights abuses.

So what do we mean by “modern slavery”? Modern slavery is an umbrella term to refer to cases of human exploitation, where the victim can’t refuse or leave, and can include human trafficking, servitude, child labour, sex trafficking, forced marriage, forced labour and debt bondage.

Forced labour is defined in the International Labour Organization convention No. 29 as: “All work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Modern slavery is often found in businesses and supply chains that depend on labour, and frequently low-skilled labour, as part of their operations. This can include in manufacturing, harvesting or janitorial roles. The way that suppliers treat their workforce and sub-contracted labourers may translate into modern slavery risks for the businesses that buy goods and services from that supplier.

Risk factors for the property, construction and infrastructure sectors include:

  • Long and multi-tiered supply chains that may translate into little visibility and control over recruitment and employment practices of suppliers and subcontractors
  • Low-tier suppliers that may operate in multiple high-risk countries, with low-regulated environments, low levels of education and public awareness, and high levels of corruption
  • A high proportion of labour that may come from low-skilled, migrant workers with high socio-economic vulnerability. This group is particularly at a high risk of being victims of debt bondage

Could these forms of labour be found in your immediate or extended supply chains?

We can all think of instances of modern slavery in Australia over the last few years – fruit pickers or convenience store workers for example – but how could this manifest itself in property, construction or infrastructure supply chains? Examples of modern slavery associated with Australian property, construction and infrastructure supply chains include:

  • A group of Chinese construction workers were promised work in an Australian development project. They were forced to work outside of formal payroll arrangements and were not paid their promised wages or entitlements for long periods of time
  • Children in India may be forced to drop out of school when middlemen offer families advance payments for sending their children to work in quarries that supply raw materials for construction; materials that can end up in Australian projects. The children work long hours, are not allowed to leave and have the majority of their wages (if any) sent directly to their families
  • Indian stonemasons were recruited in India by labour subcontractors and brought to Australia to work in a rural construction project. Once they arrived, their passports were confiscated, they were forced to live in poor living conditions, allowed out only once a month and forced to work seven days a week for minimal wages.

So what can we do about it? How do we start taking action?

First, you need to understand the issue – and that’s why the Supply Chain Sustainability School has released a new report: Modern Slavery in Australian property, construction and infrastructure supply chains.

Familiarising yourself and your teams around the issue of modern slavery, what the Australian Modern Slavery Act may look like when it comes out later this year, and understanding your risks are all important first steps.

Second, start asking questions of your clients, your suppliers and your colleagues. Once committed to address the issue, your organisation will need to be able to answer three key questions about what you intend to do. Each of these questions (and answers) identifies possible actions your company may want to take:

  1. Are you aware of modern slavery in your supply chain, or where might it be found?
  2. Are you taking, or will you take, measures to reduce the prevalence of modern slavery in your supply chain?
  3. Can you provide stakeholders with reliable insights into the modern slavery footprint of your goods and services?

As the Australian Parliament moves towards introducing a Modern Slavery Act in 2018, this new report has been written for the School by EY and provides an outline on the most important elements; how you can:

  • Understand the term “modern slavery”
  • Examine case studies in our supply chains
  • Identify the four key areas of risk to your business
  • Appreciate the “when, who and how” of the Act
  • Recognise the four anticipated reporting criteria
  • Start asking the three critical questions you’ll need to raise
  • Know where to go for more information

Nobody is expecting you to be an overnight expert, but this is an issue that can fundamentally change your supply chains in coming years, expose you to areas of risk and reputational damage you didn’t realise were there, and lead to opportunities for better procurement outcomes in social, environmental and economic terms.

An Australian Modern Slavery Act is coming. Get across the essential information now.

Robin Mellon is chief executive of the Supply Chain Sustainability School.

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