Modern Slavery Call to Action

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The conflict in Ukraine has been a sad reminder of the extent of modern slavery in contemporary society. PHOTO: CNS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO, REUTERS

The tragedy of the invasion of Ukraine has sadly highlighted how modern slavery intersects with war and conflict. Evidence of mass abductions, forced transfers and deportations of Ukrainian citizens (including children) into Russia are beginning to emerge.

News media, satellite images and eyewitness accounts allege that thousands are being sent to “filtration camps” where they are photographed and fingerprinted before being moved into Russia potentially for forced labour in state and private facilities.

Russia also has a more recent history of using state-sponsored forced labour from North Korea in the logging, construction and textile industries. How long will it be before Russian goods and services made from Ukrainian forced labour find their way to the international market and investor portfolios?

Only a few months ago worldwide attention was focused on mounting evidence from China that Uyghur and other Turkic-Muslim ethnic minorities have been systematically brutalised through forced labour and “re-education” in Xinjiang’s cotton industry – an industry that supplies the world’s major clothing brands. It is also alleged that Uyghurs have been transferred across China for forced labour and this risk is woven into the supply chains of global goods and services purchased by Australians every day.

A recent Nottingham University study has also found links to Uyghur forced labour in the production of solar panels. This is disappointing for many who are keen to care for the planet by investing in renewable energy. In 2018, the Global Slavery Index (GSI) found that 40.3 million men, women and children experience modern slavery across the world with the highest numbers in the Asia Pacific. This month the Australian Government ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Protocol of 2014 to Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29).

In March of this year the International Labour Organisation (ILO) declared that the systematic and systemic use of child labour and forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has come to an end. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA

The Protocol adds new elements to the Convention aimed at tackling the complexities of modern slavery and addressing the root causes of forced labour, with obligations to: 1) prevent and suppress forced labour, 2) protect victims and provide access to appropriate and effective remedies, and 3) penalise the perpetrators of forced labour and end their impunity.

This is a positive achievement for Australia and any future government working to reduce the number of people experiencing forced labour in the supply chains of goods and services purchased by everyday Australians. The challenge is to now step-up engagement where vulnerable people are at-risk and forced labour is a predictable outcome.

A movement to address the impacts of business on human rights has been developing for several years with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights setting the standard. Various human rights due diligence legislation and reporting regimes targeting the supply chains of global businesses have been enacted including legislation focused on modern slavery.

Australia’s Modern Slavery Act (MSA) 2018 mirrors transparency legislation enacted in the UK, California and France – other countries such as New Zealand are following suit. The MSA requires large businesses and non-profits to assess, address and report on modern slavery risks in supply chains and operations. Corporate compliance with the MSA is high but real change for vulnerable people at the bottom of supply chains remains elusive.

Governments, investors and business, faith and community leaders need to urgently define a theory of change for ending modern slavery.

These efforts are not keeping pace with the growth of the informal economy, how vulnerability is constructed by powerful economic and political actors and how profit is cruelly extracted from millions of people – by nation states, multi-national corporations and their suppliers, recruitment agencies, middlemen and criminal networks. Governments, investors and business, faith and community leaders need to urgently define a theory of change for ending modern slavery.

They must be willing to confront systemic inequality in profit models and value chains to ensure people have decent wages, conditions and legal protection.

There is some good news. In March of this year the International Labour Organisation (ILO) declared that the systematic and systemic use of child labour and forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has come to an end. For decades, the Uzbek Government was forcing over 1 million children and adults, including medical staff, public sector employees and students, to pick cotton every year during the harvest.

It took 15 years of international campaigning to end state-imposed forced and child labour in Uzbekistan. Leaders must urgently apply lessons learned from the Uzbek cotton industry and mobilise to safeguard other vulnerable groups around the world before more generations are consigned to forced labour.

Related:

Jenny Stanger: Let victims’ voices end modern slavery