No one buying prawns from the supermarket, picking up a $10 T-shirt or checking in at hotels is actively seeking to contribute to slavery or exploitation, but it can be an unfortunate consequence of the complex supply chains and labour forces involved in a modern, connected world.
Such operations are incredibly difficult to oversee and control, but Australia’s biggest companies are now obliged to audit origins of products in their supply chain. In an effort to tackle modern slavery, federal laws in effect since last week mean companies with a turnover of more than $100 million must document the risk of exploitation in their supply chains. Those businesses which fail to meet their obligations within the next year will be named and shamed by the government.
Anti-slavery advocates say the moves do not go far enough, as reported in today’s Sun-Herald, but the step towards great scrutiny and transparency is a welcome one.
It may cause a burden for the roughly 3500 companies concerned, which are in the process of engaging consultancy firms to deliver reports by November next year, but there are advantages to be found too.
Customers will be reassured to know the companies they are purchasing from do no harm, and there will be benefits for the businesses which can demonstrate a high level of compliance. Consumers should be happy to pay a bit extra to know their products and services do not contribute to child labour, forced labour or human trafficking, if it can be proven.
Likewise, most of us want to know those working in businesses large and small are being paid properly. Not only because it could easily be us who could be underpaid or exploited, and it’s a fate we would rather avoid, but because we want our money to go to those who we feel have earned it through their service or expertise.
As revealed in today’s Sun-Herald, the Department of Home Affairs and Fair Work is investigating the Escarpment Group, which operates luxury hotels in the Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley, for allegedly underpaying migrant workers who had been promised on-the-job training. The details worry former competition watchdog boss Professor Allan Fels, who chaired the Migrant Workers’ Taskforce; he said the hotel group’s conduct “looks to be highly exploitative”.
Escarpment says it is co-operating fully with the investigation, believes it has complied at all times with its legal obligations and denies any wrongdoing. Who is right will be known in the fullness of time.
The Sun-Herald has reported on a number of cases of underpayment elsewhere in the hospitality sector, even in restaurants owned by top celebrity chefs. Shining a light on these practices has yielded results, with the Rockpool Dining Group agreeing late last year to pay back $1.6 million to workers.
Greater scrutiny of, and more transparency in, these matters ought to be welcomed not only by consumers but also the business communities which hope to win their trust. We must also make sure the laws are strong enough, and the watchdogs robust enough, to make a difference.