Australia has joined the international club of countries with legislation seeking to eradicate modern slavery from the supply chain of domestic businesses, prompting much backslapping and self-congratulatory tweeting by politicians.
Obviously the spirit of the legislation is to be admired, a reduction in human misery is a goal we can all support.
However, how effective is the legislation likely to be?
Well, given that the legislation borrows heavily from the precedents set elsewhere, particularly the UK, we’re not confident it will dramatically improve any existing cases of exploitation and serfdom. As we’ve explored previously, the UK legislation is a bit rubbish.
Despite loudly proclaiming that the Australian version fixes shortcomings of the UK legislation, there’s scant evidence of this in the legislation (summary of the bill here). The main “innovation” seems to be an online register of statements made by the companies impacted by the legislation. Not exactly William Wilburforce levels of anti-slavery work there.
The main area of criticism we levelled at the UK legislation has been recreated in the Australian legislation; the companies most at risk of finding slavery in their supply chain are deemed to be those with revenue greater than $100m p.a., which makes no logical sense at all. By that logic, a domestic bank is more likely to be using child labour in Indonesia that a small scale importer of Balinese-style furniture. Does that sound right? Of course not.
In fact a skip down the list of the largest companies in Australia would easily remove plenty of the names as being highly-unlikely to find slavery issues in their supply chain.
Of course, definitions are always worth examining. One element that is included in the definition of “modern slavery” is “the worst forms of child labour“.
That seems like curious wording, suggesting we’re happy with the 2nd worst forms of child labour. This is further defined as;
The worst forms of child labour are defined in Article 3 as:
a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and
trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory
labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in
b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of
pornography or for pornographic performances;
c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the
production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international
d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is
likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.
Read that again. Does that definition prevent a 12 year old Bangladeshi child from voluntarily working in a textile factory? Not really.
There might be a reason for that ambiguity.
Wherever it’s been passed, modern slavery legislation seems pretty rubbish at actually driving the outcomes it claims to deliver. Generally, the legislation does little more than require very large companies to write a public statement once a year to the effect that they’ve had a look and they didn’t find any forced labour in their supply chain.
A general rule about regulation is that the largest companies are quite amenable to it as it serves to raise the barriers to entry for the smaller companies. The CBI’s anti-Brexit stance is a good case study of this. Australian companies with revenue greater than $100m will not care a jot about having to write a statement on a website once a year.
In addition, the definition of modern slavery is shockingly ambiguous on the use of children in paid labour. Why? Well, one possible reason might be that paid child labour is preferable to the alternative. In countries with extreme poverty, families have to make stark choices to make ends meet. As a matter of survival, a child may be required to bring an income into the household once they’ve reached an age where this is possible. Denying this as an option can result in an even worse alternative income stream – child prostitution.
With this terrible choice in mind, let’s take a moment to laugh loudly at the virtue signalling of this article, written by two Australian academics, equating workers in Australian retail outlets with those child workers in Bangladeshi sweatshops;
……and closer to home, the underpayment of Australian workers employed by companies like 7-Eleven, Dominos and Pizza Hut are indicative of the oppressive working conditions that may amount to modern slavery.
“Let my people go“, but only once they’ve delivered my Hawaiian with extra jalapenos.