Modern slavery is an issue that effects consumers around the world. The joint standing committee's inquiry into establishing a modern slavery act in Australia produced a report that defines the gamut of what modern slavery entails, ranging from debt bondage and wage theft to child labour. Such practices aren't limited to production upstream from Australia, either. There are estimated to be at least 4,000 people working in slave-like conditions within our own shores.
Australian consumers unknowingly participate in these global flows of exploited labour. There is scant information on where our goods come from, who produced them or how much they were paid (if at all).
The bill that is before the Senate will require companies with more than $100 million in consolidated revenue to publish a Modern Slavery Statement addressing the risk of slavery in their supply chains. However, there are concerns that sanctions for shirking the obligations aren't enough. There are currently no penalties for non-compliance with reporting requirements, and the act specifically excludes the creation of an offence or civil penalties.
Attempts to insert more stringent requirements are currently afoot. The government in the Senate has proposed granting a ministerial power to request an explanation as to why companies failed to provide a Modern Slavery Statement.
But are the Federal Parliament's legislative efforts ultimately toothless? Many Australian entrepreneurs seem to think so. They are turning to grassroots solutions that focus on empowerment rather than enforcement.
Supply chain transparency is one way that social entrepreneurs are looking to combat the issue. The Bugisu Project is a not-for-profit run by students at UNSW that aims to improve work conditions for the sale and supply of coffee to corporate clients. All coffee is imported from the Bugisu Co-operative Union and then distributed to corporate offices in Australia.
Co-founder of the Bugisu Project, Brody Smith, says that "plenty of companies seek fair trade products for procurement, but this often excludes players who can't afford the certifications. The Bugisu Project allows smaller Australian companies to know where their coffee is coming from, from crop to cup".
Australian innovators are fighting labour exploitation by turning to technology, too. Legaler, an Australian legal tech start-up, is developing Legaler Aid, a blockchain-based platform that will match disadvantaged clients with pro bono legal services. The joint standing committee inquiry into modern slavery found that immigrant workers on temporary or expired visas are some of the hardest hit by labour exploitation in Australia. Where these individuals would previously have little or no avenue of legal redress, pro bono platforms like Legaler Aid aim to increase access to justice and decrease legal costs.
As legislative attempts to curtail modern slavery are stalled by Senate debates on penalties for non-reporting companies, Australian start-ups and NFPs look set to beat them to it.
Lachlan Ellison is a law student at the University of New South Wales and community lead at Legaler.