Opinion12 Mar 2019

The key role of business in combating modern slavery

Businesses seeking transparent supply chains are taking active measures to combat modern slavery.

Representatives meeting at the 2019 Responsible Business Alliance in Penang, Malaysia. Photo Credit: Responsible Business Alliance.

Not so long ago, it was unheard of for a company to actively, and voluntarily, seek to ensure its supply chain was free from slavery. Although the abolition movement is hundreds of years old, modern slavery legislation has only been around since 2015 and currently only exists in a handful of countries.

But some pioneering companies are leading the way in this critical human rights mission and addressing supply chain transparency head on. In doing so they are actively combating modern slavery and setting a global example.

Last month, Walk Free’s Chief Executive Jenn Morris was invited to speak to members and suppliers of the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) at a regional forum in Penang, Malaysia. Attendees were there to learn how other companies have implemented practices to safeguard workers against forced labour and modern slavery in the supply chains of their operations.

One business described how its board of directors, upon realising the possibility its supply chain contained cases of forced labour, immediately took measures to investigate. The company joined the Responsible Business Alliance and undertook its validated assessment process (VAP) conducted by sustainability audit firms. The business then worked with RBA to improve its management systems, institutional structures and practices. 

In recent years, the impact pioneering companies have had is significant. Businesses can leverage their collective purchasing power to lift the operating standards of industries by requiring their suppliers meet ethical labour standards. One example of this is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a coalition of over 4000 members that this year reported that 19 per cent of global palm oil production is now RSPO certified.

Another example, Fortescue Metals Group, has implemented due diligence measures at every level of its supply chain and has committed to sharing its learnings with others. Due to this tenacity, the mining company participated in multiple discussions with the federal government on the Australian Modern Slavery Act, including a consultation session between business and the attorney-general’s department on the proposed reporting requirements of the legislation.

Although the complexity of assessing a global supply chain can seem intimidating, now is the time for action not words. The private sector is waking up to the fact that in a globalised economy, business practices must be transparent to avoid exploitative employment.

In taking steps to rectify this problem businesses are ensuring better lives for the workers in their supply chains and helping to combat modern slavery. Imagine the impact this could have globally if other companies were to follow suit.