The faltering fight against modern slavery

| June 23, 2020

As the world struggles to cope with dramatic economic and supply chain changes from the COVID-19 pandemic, critical issues such as worker exploitation, abuse and safety have largely taken a back seat.

Much of the world economy has been impacted by the pandemic, with supply chains in particular thrown into chaos. Many supply networks have been shut down, cut off, or rendered suddenly invisible. This has forced a greater reliance on technology for information, but severely limited our sight on real-time conditions faced by workers globally.

Many companies, too, have sought to enact force majeure clauses and stop payments to suppliers, or refused to honour their in-process orders. This has left suppliers unable to pay workers, leaving the workers in difficult conditions, and without any oversight, protection or income.

The speed with which some corporations have abandoned their aspirations to take responsibility for labour conditions in their supply chains has ignited a debate on the meaning of corporate social responsibility.

A recent rush by major corporations to support Black Lives Matter protesters, while a potentially positive shift, changes little for the mistreated migrant, informal workers, and even many formal workers in, say, Amazon’s supply chain.

Firms such as Amazon have shown little concern for the health and safety of their workers.

Healthcare operators and some retailers, too, have in some cases shown an unconscionable harshness toward the rights of essential workers, and those who carry the burden of risk amid a health crisis.

Beyond protections for these workers, the pandemic has exposed the significant but hidden reliance of global supply chains on migrant and informal workers.

Migrant workers globally have been poorly supported. In Australia, temporary visa holders have been refused access to income support, while migrant workers from Singapore to Malaysia to the US have been mistreated and exposed to health risks in significant ways.

While the pandemic has essentially authorised labour exploitation on a major scale, corporations aren’t solely responsible.

Consumers have allowed the risks of the pandemic to be shifted to millions of regular essential workers, and especially irregular migrant workers across the globe who are working for their survival.

Asking Amazon, for example, to continue to provide non-essential products to your door, knowing full well that its workers have no access to sick pay or even adequate protections, is an example of this.

We should also be asking deeper questions about the intersection of our labour laws and migration laws, and how we protect the millions of workers – many of whom are temporary workers – that we now rely on to bear the risks of work in a pandemic.

In a global pandemic, where do we really stand on critical labor issues such as modern slavery that we saw as a priority before COVID-19?

Australia introduced the Commonwealth Modern Slavey Act in 2019, requiring large companies to report on the risks of labour and rights violations in their supply chains.

Because of the pandemic, however, we’ve seen regulatory protections in many areas removed, or watered down internationally: from reducing water and air quality standards, to removing endangered land and species protections.

What, then, has happened to labour conditions and workers’ rights under these same conditions?

The reality for most corporations, even before the pandemic, is that supply chains are significant, complicated and diverse, and visibility beyond the first tier of suppliers is rare. This should raise questions as to what firms know currently about the working conditions in their supply chain, when they now have almost no access to their suppliers.

We know that many workers aren’t currently captured in regulatory measures that have been set up to ensure proper reporting in supply chains (for example, domestic and care workers, and sex workers).

But what of the issues that now go well beyond simply “reporting” the existence of worker exploitation in supply chains?

If we’re willing to allow undocumented workers to continue to work under dangerous and exploitative conditions, yet protest vigorously that our own health and rights be protected, what then for the months ahead?

Our expectations for companies reporting on modern slavery, for example, can’t just be hit with a “pause” button while we all deal with the pandemic.

Arguments that corporations are just “dealing” with the pandemic has encouraged far greater exploitation of workers and rights than we’ve previously seen.

What do we do to move forward?

In our research with procurement managers across the globe, it’s clear that managers grapple with modern slavery, and struggle with visibility of hidden workers under even pre-pandemic conditions.

The pandemic has forced auditing online, and information from remote operations has been difficult to obtain. Before the pandemic, information capture in supply chains was somewhat performative.

In the context of modern slavery, there was an underlying presumption that exploited workers were “victims” waiting desperately for benevolent rescuers to save them.

Our research has revealed an awareness of an obligation to reduce exploitation, but how to achieve this was less clear-cut.

In the context of the range of exploitative conditions captured by modern slavery, however, the situation is a lot more complex. Workers don’t reveal themselves as victims, but as people with a desire to work, with families dependent upon them and their earnings, who may have limited other employment opportunities, and are in significant debt for taking the opportunity to be in the country they’re working in.

These are workers with little to gain and much to lose if they were to speak out against their forced or exploitative labour conditions. They lack the choices that privileged workers have to say no to unsafe conditions or lobby for their basic rights.

These workers have no government protection, access to welfare, or ability to take sick days. They’ll carry on the work that you or I are asking them to do when we purchase a company’s products. And what of our responsibility for those workers whose employer was cut off by a corporation whose contract allows them to just walk away?

Our expectations for companies reporting on modern slavery can’t just be hit with a “pause” button while we all deal with the pandemic. 

The pandemic has given Australian companies a reprieve from reporting on the risk of modern slavery in their supply chains.

Will the impact of the pandemic over the past few months enable companies to pull back on their reporting in light of these challenges?

The concern is that we’ll see a contraction of corporate commitments to end modern slavery.

Australia has created something substantive with its modern slavery legislation – the requirement to report on effective change. There are potential opportunities to lead with workers, and to create real and positive change. We remain hopeful that the first modern slavery statements to be published in 2020 will go beyond superficial reporting, and will confront, rather than retreat from, these challenging global problems in the wake of COIVD-19.

This article was written by Marie Segrave, an Associate Professor of Criminology, and Dayna Simpson, an Associate Professor in the Department of Management at Monash University.  It was published by Lens.  On 25 June, Marie Segrave will join a webinar panel discussion about the intersections of gender, violence, exploitation and organisations, hosted by @MonashBusiness.

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