Supermarkets in Australia and around the world are under growing pressure to clean up their supply chains and rid them of modern slavery.
Discount chain Aldi last week became the first of Australia’s supermarkets to sign up to the Slave-Free Alliance, an offshoot of global anti-slavery organisation Hope for Justice.
Under the agreement, Aldi committed to conducting a human rights risk assessment of its operations as well as providing modern slavery awareness training to its employees and business partners, so suppliers and staff with product sourcing responsibilities can identify the signs of modern slavery and take action.
But University of Technology Sydney Business School modern slavery expert Martijn Boersma said Aldi’s decision to sign up to the Slave-Free Alliance was “more on the symbolic side of things than on the substantive side of things”.
Dr Boersma called on Australia’s supermarkets to address “structural pricing pressures” that put downward price pressure on suppliers, leading to them “cutting corners, underpaying people and other kinds of exploitation”.
“I think that specifically for a supermarket like Aldi, which positions itself as a ‘price fighter’, there’s a structural problem that needs to be addressed, and this goes for the other supermarkets as well,” he said.
“It’s nice that Aldi joined this alliance, but it is a symbolic measure, whereas dealing with those systematic price pressures is where they can take substantive action.”
What is modern slavery?
Modern slavery is an umbrella term that describes a range of labour and human rights abuses.
More than 40 million people around the world are estimated to be in slavery today, including 25 million in forced labour in factories, farms and fishing.
Traditional slavery was based on an ownership relationship, but in modern times slavery is “more of an illegal form of control over someone else, for example, through the confiscation of an ID or a passport, by incurring a particular debt that has to be paid off”, Dr Boersma explained.
“The common elements to it is that there is real coercion in the work that you do, and there’s an exploitative factor,” he said.
“Basically, it’s about those people being in slavery, losing control over their working conditions, and not being able to leave, not being able to exit the employment relationship.”
In 2018, Australia passed a Modern Slavery Act, requiring some companies to report on “the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains and actions to address those risk”.
The act’s mandatory reporting requirements have resulted in some of the nation’s biggest retailers revealing cases of modern slavery in their supply chains.
Last year, Wesfarmers, which owns stores including Bunnings, Kmart, and Target, identified more than 340 “critical breaches” across its supply chain.
Woolworths Group revealed its audits had found seafood, cocoa and nuts suppliers in Bolivia, Ivory Coast and Vietnam had extreme risks of forced labour.
“This is due to the inherent risks in agriculture, high levels of product exported from high-risk countries, and substantiated cases of forced and child labour associated with a product category,” the company said.
In December, the federal government released a National Plan of Action to Combat Modern Slavery, a five-year plan for preventing, disrupting and prosecuting crimes of modern slavery.
Ripe for exploitation
One of the main areas of concern in Australia is the fresh food supply chain, Dr Boersma said.
Farmers rely on large, transient workforces, often migrant workers on visas and backpackers, to pick fruits and vegetables at ‘piece rates’.
Last year, Woolworths revealed it had found 332 Australian fruit and vegetable suppliers within its supply chain where workers were at risk of slave-like conditions, while Coles admitted that some farms supplying it with fresh produce were not covered by its ethical sourcing program.
“Australia has a very unique situation in that, specifically in fresh food supply chains, we rely on a large migrant workforce,” Dr Boersma said.
“Those people form a very precarious group of people that are easily exploited.
Tinned tuna and seafood’s slavery problem
Seafood is one of the industries plagued by modern slavery, with reports of people deprived of their liberty and forced to work under in appalling conditions in nations like Thailand.
The humble tinned tuna is a favourite cheap and nutritious of protein for many, but there’s a dark side to this product that can’t be ignored.
In 2019, researchers found that just one brand of tinned tuna on Australian supermarket shelves could confidently claim slavery was not involved in its supply chain.
Seafood is a “high-risk sector” for modern slavery “because it is sourced from overseas from areas such as Thailand that have a reputation for modern slavery and very poor working conditions in the industry”, Dr Boersma said.
Supermarkets should be directing their attention to these ‘high-risk areas’ and “put in place more due diligence in their sourcing”, he said.