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Economy vs. ethics: How COVID-19 can push modern slavery into the Australian supply chain

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modern slavery

It is no news that COVID-19 has changed the way we live our lives! In these unprecedented times every organisation has had to adapt. The lucky ones are challenged to keep up with increased demand and the less fortunate are managing decreased revenue, or worse, having to close their doors.

‘Desperate times call for desperate measures’ has been proven to ring true with governments and organisations under pressure to perform, cut costs and meet demand, but how is this going to impact quality and ethics?

Nationally and internationally, ‘normal’ ways of working have been adjusted to comply with government guidelines put in place to ensure the safety of their citizens. Social distancing, border closures and halts on production have all had significant impacts for most Australian workers. And we are still not clear about the long-term consequences of this extraordinary event.

Statistically, low-skilled workers are more likely to be exploited, often due to cost reduction strategies implemented for financial gain. For those on minimum wage, the repercussions of the current working climate can be debilitating – particularly when it comes to seeking secure income. Thus, the defenseless may face greater risk of succumbing to modern slavery or exploitation.

What is modern slavery?

Modern slavery describes serious exploitation in the workplace, such as human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced labour, amongst others. Findings from the Global Slavery Index estimate there were approximately 15,000 people living in “conditions of modern slavery” in Australia in 2016.

Coronavirus has made it clear that the Western world is certainly not immune to exploitation, with countries such as the USA using prison labour to create medical-grade facemasks and hand sanitiser in exchange for less than minimum wage. Opportunities to exploit Australians are heightened during times of crisis where people may:

  • experience loss of income
  • have low awareness of workplace rights
  • are required to work excessive overtime
  • have increased work demand due to supply chain shortages and
  • have the inability to return safely to home countries.

The ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ mindset is not only relevant to the government and large corporations. Struggling Australians are more likely to be exploited while seeking alternative methods of income in times of crisis, where desperation can often be more powerful than the elusive search for fair and just employment. Often it is too late by the time these workers recognise the unstable and risky circumstances they find themselves in. Thus, the cycle of modern slavery continues.

What can businesses do about modern slavery?

To avoid subjecting vulnerable Australian workers to mistreatment, organisations of all sizes need to ensure there is transparency across every phase of their supply chain. Transparency from suppliers and third-party operators is key in maintaining an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable supply chain strategy.

Businesses must maintain supplier relationships and open communication around the Human Rights risks associated with COVID-19 and its carryover effects. Supplier liaison is essential in ensuring organisations support their vulnerable workers through flexibility to the ever-changing situation. It is

crucial to communicate and reinforce the rights and roles of each operational party – that is from the CEO down to the line workers. This includes access to sick and carers leave, the correct protective equipment, the availability of grievance mechanisms and whistleblowing options, and availability of increased cleaning and sanitisation in workplaces.

Support network groups such as employee, investor, civil society, peak bodies, and suppliers provide collaboration opportunities to create solutions-based approaches – particularly when adapting to industry changes to safeguard ethical workplaces. This includes educating staff around the current situation and identifying what modern slavery is and how it can happen during the existing pandemic.

Lastly, staying up to date with national and international legislation and resources will support operations and assist practical application of any relevant changes in line with the current trading climate. Practicing human rights, fair trade and fair labour guidelines should be an ongoing part of your business strategy and process. If we can learn anything from COVID-19, it is the importance of ethical and transparent trade.

But little has been done yet to look to the future, i.e. what are we learning? How can we better integrate sustainability into all supply chain processes? How can we use this experience as a catalyst for change? It is imperative that we, as a society, move towards a structure that equally promotes ethical economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Nicholas Bernhardt is the CEO of Informed 365. With a passion for sustainable workplaces and positive world change, Nicholas started Informed 365 after seeing a disconnect in organisation’s corporate social responsibility and the tools at their disposal to harness and understand data. Informed 365 is now the leading tech solution for over 3,000 Australian companies legally required to report under the Modern Slavery Act with high-profile clients such as the Property Council of Australia, Wesfarmers Industrial & Safety, Origin, Zoo’s Victoria, and Michael Hill.

Nicholas Bernhardt, Informed 365
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