Some of the nation’s biggest brands are in damage control following allegations of forced labour in their supply chains, but modern slavery experts say it should come as no surprise.
On Monday night ABC’s Four Corners aired Tell The World, claiming that the Chinese government has been systematically targeting the Muslim minority Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang province.
Up to a million Uyghurs are thought to have been detained and forced to work in factories and cotton fields in Xinjiang, a place Four Corners reporter Sophie McNeil described as “the world’s largest open-air prison”.
According to Four Corners, brands sold in Australia that source cotton from Xinjiang include Target, Cotton On, Jeanswest, Dangerfield, Ikea and H&M.
Western companies “stand an increasing risk of having products made by forced, or at least highly involuntary, labour”, German academic Adrian Zenz told the program.
UTS business ethics lecturer Martijn Boersma, co-author of forthcoming book Addressing Modern Slavery, said the news that Australian brands were using forced labour in their supply chains was unsurprising.
In March, Dr Boersma penned an op-ed calling on Australian companies to take modern slavery more seriously.
“There is this incidental outrage every couple of months where we see these companies exposed for using forced labour, but we know it’s happening,” Dr Boersma told The New Daily.
“Especially for those companies that are sourcing from China, where prison labour is very common.”
According to the most recent Global Estimates of Modern Slavery report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation there were 40.3 million victims of modern slavery, with 24.9 million people in forced labour and 15.4 million people in forced marriage.
Despite the prevalence of modern slavery in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia has lagged behind other countries in cracking down on companies that profit from the practice.
Australia’s first modern slavery laws came into effect on January 1, but do not include penalties for companies that fail to comply.
The federal government’s failure to appoint an anti-slavery commissioner with the power to enforce compliance means that little is likely to change, Dr Boersma said.
This places the burden of choosing slavery-free products on shoppers, he said.
“No consumer wants to be buying a product made by modern slavery,” Dr Boersma said.
“But at the same time when a consumer is doing shopping and choosing a T-shirt and coffee that’s not a consideration – that’s at the forefront.”
While companies may still be “afraid of suffering reputational damage” from a forced labour scandal, a “critical mass” of consumer outrage is required to trigger change, he said.
What can consumers do?
Brands that don’t “actively look for forced labour within their supply chains are ignoring human rights and the reputational risk of being associated with modern slavery,” Walk Free Foundation research analyst Elise Gordon said.
Consumers can help end the use of forced labour in company supply chains by holding brands accountable and buying ethically made products, experts said.
“Consumers should do some research into a company’s labour standards and consider purchasing products that are ethically made,” Ms Gordon said.
“If consumers are unsure where an item comes from or what steps a company has in place to prevent labour exploitation and forced labour, reach out and ask.”
Online tools such as the Modern Slavery Registry can help consumers decide which brands to support.
Consumers are “hungry for information about the supply chains of companies”, Oxfam Australia advocacy manager Joy Kyriacou said.
Ms Kyriacou said that consumers can help by “simply writing to a company that you like and saying that ‘I like to shop at your brand but you’re not transparent, you’re not respecting people’s human rights in the supply chain…and I want to know what you can do’.”