When one of the biggest food companies in the world, Nestle, found slavery in its supply chains in 2015 it made a public admission, a move praised by anti-slavery groups.
Nestle had launched an investigation a few months earlier after media reports alleged labourers in Thailand’s fishing industry were being brutally treated.
The company’s investigation found many of the workers were from Myanmar and Cambodia.
Some had been literally chained to Thai fishing boats. Some were physically abused. Most were paid little, if anything.
These workers supply much of the seafood that Nestle and other companies sell to consumers.
The chief executive of anti-slavery organisation The Freedom Fund, Nick Grono, told RN Breakfast he had recently been in Thailand and spoken to victims of the practice.
“We met with men who had been enslaved on fishing boats for six or eight years at a time, subject to horrendous violence,” he said.
“Men who had seen fellow crew members who were too ill to work thrown over the side.”
From the beginning of Nestle’s investigation, it has released its findings publicly, as well as the actions it is taking to fix the problem.
Margaret Stuart, the head of corporate affairs for Nestle Oceania, said her company was not alone in having sourced products that had been produced using slave labour.
“If you are sourcing fish from Thailand, then you have a problem,” she said.
“There are problems endemic throughout that industry in terms of abuses of human rights, and we’ve been steadily working on that over the past couple of years to try and put some remedies in place.”
‘Didn’t we abolish slavery in the 1800s?’
Modern slavery is a broad term, which involves a range of exploitative practices, including human trafficking, forced labour, wage exploitation, child labour and debt bondage.
Nick Grono said most people were surprised that slavery still existed.
“A lot of people will think, ‘Didn’t we largely abolish slavery in the 1800s?'” he said.
“The sad fact is that the latest estimates from the UN and the Walk Free Foundation are that there are about 40 million people around the world in slavery today.”
So how can a multinational company really know what is happening at every stage of its supply chain?
The mining industry has some of the most complex supply chains in the world.
Vanessa Zimmerman chairs the Human Rights Leadership Group for the Global Compact Network Australia — the world’s biggest voluntary corporate social responsibility initiative — and she is also the group human rights advisor at Rio Tinto.
“There was an example that was reported a year or so ago, in one of the shipping charters we were using, so our team in marine took steps immediately to speak to the captain, to speak to the company that owned that ship, to actually board the ship and look at the conditions there and insist on improvements straight away,” she said.
Modern slavery is a problem mining magnate Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest knows plenty about.
He has been vocal in the anti-slavery movement for years.
Alongside his daughter Grace, Mr Forrest founded the anti-slavery group Walk Free Foundation in 2011.
But he too has found modern slavery in the supply chains of his own mining company, Fortescue Metals Group.
“We got a suspicion that the labour welfare in the Middle East wasn’t up to the mark and we sent in a team to go and check it out and that’s when we discovered thousands of East Indian and Asian workers being treated much worse than you’d ever see a farm animal,” he told RN Breakfast in August.
Mr Forrest was able to use the evidence gathered by his team’s investigation to pressure the publicly listed company at the top of that supply chain to end the mistreatment of its workers.
“That company has since been impeccable in its labour standards,” he said.
UK laws urge supply chain disclosure
Modern slavery affects almost every industry, from agriculture and groceries to clothing, technology, and even fund managers and financial services, the very people investing in these businesses.
The United Kingdom has been leading the way internationally in creating transparency in supply chains.
In 2015 it introduced the Modern Slavery Act, a piece of legislation designed to improve efforts to fight slavery.
It requires companies to publish annual statements on their websites about the steps being taken to ensure slavery is not in their supply chains.
So, does Australia need its own modern slavery act?
This is what a parliamentary committee in Canberra has been investigating since February.
“Whether you’ve purchased a t-shirt or food … there is likely to be modern slavery in the supply chain,” said Chris Crewther, the federal member for Dunkeley and the chair of the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee.
“We’ve seen for example in the past Sherrin footballs, there were cases of child labour the supply chain back in 2011. There is a person in my electorate who was essentially living in the wall of a brothel.”
His inquiry into establishing a modern slavery act received more than 200 submissions and held public hearings around the country.
The Government is considering whether it should adopt legislation similar to that in the UK.
But critics say the UK’s Modern Slavery Act does not go far enough.
There is no standard requirement for the information companies need to include in their statements, and there is no penalty for not reporting.
So far, only about 3,000 statements have been produced, out of the 12,000 UK companies that are supposed to be reporting on their supply chains.
Australia set for anti-slavery act and commissioner
The Australian inquiry released its final report in December, with 49 recommendations.
It proposes going further than the UK legislation and, so far, both business and NGOs seem to be satisfied.
“It’s not often that you will see businesses supporting new regulation and new requirements, but we’ve seen a lot of businesses come out and do that,” Vanessa Zimmerman said.
“They want to see a more level playing field between some of the so-called leaders and laggards in this space to really get all businesses doing the same type of action in these areas.”
The key recommendation from the inquiry’s report is to create a law that requires mandatory supply chain reporting for businesses, organisations and governments with more than $50 million in turnover.
Those statements should be held in a central database, and there should be a basic standard of what is required in the report.
Organisations that fail to produce a statement could be penalised.
“We’ve also recommended an independent anti-slavery commissioner to lead the charge in Australia on tackling modern slavery,” Liberal MP Chris Crewthers added.
Until the legislation is drafted — probably at the start of 2018 — it will be up to companies to guide themselves on investigating modern slavery, and up to consumers to ask questions about the supply chain before they buy.