Seafood, rubber gloves, oranges: the products you buy in Australia could be associated with modern slavery

Important points
  • A new report on corporate reporting under Australia’s Modern Slavery Act has been published.
  • The main sectors covered are horticulture, seafood, apparel and gloves.
  • Consumers are encouraged to vote with their wallets.
If your clothes are made in China, rubber gloves from Malaysia and seafood from Thailand, researchers warn you may be at risk of supporting modern slavery practices.
These have been identified as the sectors most at risk of modern slavery in a new report produced by a coalition of human rights organizations and academics.

And despite earlier warnings about the risks to Australian companies that source these products, little has changed to improve the risks.

Put a shrimp on the barbie for Christmas? Be warned

As the holiday season approaches and seafood is identified as a high-risk sector in the report, the researchers warn Australian consumers to proceed with caution.
There is evidence that workers in Thailand’s fishing industry have been held captive on ships for years, said one of the authors of the into modern slavery.

“Shrimp are basically Australia’s Christmas Day staple,” said Martijn Boersma, director of the Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Program at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

“We see companies that source seafood from Thailand perform very poorly in their risk factor reporting.
“It doesn’t take a lot of Google searching to realize that the Thai fishing industry has an appalling track record – we’ve seen cases of people being held captive on ships and forced to work, sometimes for years at a time.”
Another high-risk product is cotton from China, which is produced almost exclusively in Xinjiang – a region with alleged links to the forced labor of the country’s Uyghur Muslim minority.
Around 80 percent of Chinese cotton is produced in Xinjiang, which corresponds to around 20 percent of world production.

A Chinese worker flaps and stows cotton at a cotton processing factory in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, 2013. Recognition: SunYong/AP

Those cotton t-shirts you buy? Chances are they could be involved as well.

Products from Australia are another sector threatened by modern slavery practices.
“In Australia, the horticultural sector has long been identified as one of systematic exploitation and abusive working conditions,17 particularly for migrant workers on temporary visas,” says the report.
Rubber gloves from Malaysia is another industry: According to the report, labor exploitation in the Malaysian glove manufacturing sector will remain widespread in 2022.
“In response, the US issued several import bans against Malaysian rubber glove suppliers based on evidence of forced labor,” the report said.

Which Australian companies are at risk?

Some of Australia’s best-known shops and companies were named in the report as having a high risk of being associated with modern slavery practices, and some for failing to properly report their risk levels.
But not all of them were low-ranking. David Jones was one of the top rated companies in the horticulture sector in the report.
Scott Fyfe, CEO of David Jones, told SBS News that the company recognizes that without due diligence on its part, modern slavery has the potential to occur in “all aspects” of its business.
“We are training the entire company to understand the importance of this and to recognize it so that we can eradicate all forms of slavery from throughout our company,” he said.
Man touches oranges on tree midsection

Australia’s horticultural sector has long been accused of being at risk of systematic exploitation and abusive working conditions, the report says. Source: AAP

“All of our employees are custodians of the legendary brand and as such play a role in protecting our legacy. It’s important that we find support across the business and create a culture where we can identify and respond to any risks.”

“Vote with the wallet”: What consumers can do

Another author of the report, Freya Dinshaw, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Center, told SBS News that consumers should “vote with their wallet.”

“Consumers should definitely work with companies that aren’t committed to truly mitigating and addressing the risks of modern slavery,” she said.

Should companies be penalized?

Ms Dinshaw said consumers should support companies “to do the right thing” but to properly address the issue Australia needs government intervention.
That in Australia requires companies to report potential links to modern slavery in their supply chains and how they mitigate those links, but does not ban high-risk products.
There is also no penalty for companies that fail to report links to modern slavery.
The report recommends penalizing companies that fail to meet reporting guidelines, as links to high-risk areas are not diminishing under the current system.
One way to achieve this would be to impose fines or exclude companies from public tenders, say the authors.
Ms Dinshaw said the Government should ensure Australian companies could “never benefit from exploitation and abuse” in their supply chains.

She said the report called on the government to make it a duty to act on links to modern slavery, rather than “just reporting them”, to penalize risk reduction failures and to appoint an independent anti-slavery commissioner.

Ramila Chanisheff, president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association, told SBS News she was saddened that there had been no improvement since a similar report was published two years ago.
“The government has enough credible evidence on this matter and doing nothing is proving to be detrimental to the Uyghurs,” she said.

“Without policies, laws, and penalties, these industries seem to continue to benefit from slave labor.”

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