How Australian HR can help stop global slavery


How Australian HR can help stop global slavery

Proposed new laws could see Australian businesses play a key role in tackling global slavery.


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Justice Minister Michael Keenan yesterday announced that the Coalition is proposing new laws requiring large businesses to report annually on their anti-slavery actions.

"The proposed reporting requirement will ensure large businesses and other entities operating in Australia publish annual statements outlining their actions to address this crime. It will support the business community to respond more effectively to modern slavery, raise business awareness of the issue and create a level playing field for business to share information about what they are doing to eliminate modern slavery.

"Importantly, it will also encourage business to use their market influence to improve workplace standards and practices,” the minister said.

Employers welcome proposal

News of the proposed legislation has been widely welcomed.

It is a “momentous step” according to the Law Council of Australia, which estimates that 4500 people are “currently trapped in some form of exploitation” in Australia.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry (which is affiliated with WorkplaceInfo), said goods and services used by Australians should not be produced by people in other countries working under slavery-like conditions.

The Australian Chamber’s director of workplace relations, Scott Barklamb, added: “Australia’s business community wants to see an effective, balanced and practical response to this pressing global concern.”

A variety of advocacy groups and other interested non-governmental parties have also expressed support.

Big problem

Modern slavery takes several forms such as human trafficking and debt bondage among others.

It appears that, literally, millions of people around the world – many of whom are located within supply chains within the Asia-Pacific region – are being held in slave-like conditions.

“Globally, there is no single agreed estimate of the total number of modern slavery victims. Non-government estimates suggest there are up to 45.8 million people in modern slavery around the world. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates approximately 21 million people worldwide are held in forced labour alone.

“Sixty-eight per cent of these forced labourers are exploited in economic activities and more than half are exploited in the Asia-Pacific region. Modern slavery can occur in any industry and exists in both the formal and informal economies. This means that modern slavery can be present at all stages of the supply chain and in many different settings. Internationally, key industries of concern include agriculture, construction, electronics, fashion, hospitality and extractives,” reads a statement in the public consultation paper “Modern Slavery in Supply Chains Reporting Requirement”. It was published yesterday by the Australian Attorney General’s Department.

Large entities operating in Australia may unwittingly be harbouring slavers somewhere within their supply chain. Research indicates that 71% of large companies believe there is a likelihood of modern slavery taking place somewhere in their supply chain.

And the role for HR?

The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to introduce a modern slavery reporting requirement. Much of the current consultation and investigation is focused on the UK experience, which is being modelled in the proposed Australian system. If we look at the discussion in the UK we can see that there is likely to be a big role for human resources executives (see "Further reading," below).

In the UK context, employers have been advised to introduce codes of conduct and policies related to labour standards that comply with the UK’s new slavery laws. Accordingly, a person or a function within a business will need to draft, issue and police those codes and standards. Senior HR executives and/or corporate counsel and their departments are often nominated for those tasks.

UK employers have also been advised to draw up processes, policies and punishments for when the anti-slavery code is breached, whether by internal managers or third parties, and they have been advised to set up a whistle-blowing mechanism. 

HR departments have also been generally advised to become involved in setting up appropriate training programs for leaders, senior managers and front-line managers in the organisation.

Some organisations are also carrying out labour-risk analyses on a country-by-country basis, which is a task that would likely involve HR input and probably input from a third party international risk consultants.

It seems likely that Australian HR departments will probably have a leading role in managing the corporate response to any future domestic modern-day slavery legislation.

While the Australian government’s consultation paper anticipates that the future domestic law will closely follow the UK model, and there has been a lot of advice to HR over there to get involved, the Commonwealth does appear to have tasks in mind that Australian human resources departments would be well-qualified to tackle. It is specifically envisaged in the Attorney General’s consultation paper that an Australian reporting organisation will be required to report against designated criteria. These will include policies and processes to address modern slavery such as codes of conduct and training for staff.

As Quintin Lake, research fellow at Hult International Business School, and Cindy Berman, head of knowledge and learning at the Ethical Trading Initiative, comment in the UK context:

“HR policies and practices are more important today than ever before. Companies with good HR systems and skills in place have efficient, productive and engaged employees that feel protected, valued and treated with dignity and respect. But organisations also have a responsibility to protect employees from abusive and exploitative modern slavery practices, or they could be liable for criminal prosecution – not only in relation to their own employees, but throughout their supply chains”.

Further reading

What should employers include in their anti-slavery statement?

Opinion: Accelerating employer action on modern slavery is essential

Anti-slavery statements may need HR involvement

Modern Slavery in Supply Chains Reporting Requirement Public Consultation Paper – by the Attorney-General’s Department.

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