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Modern Slavery: Why it’s Every Australian’s Business

13 Sep 2023
By Dr Katherine Christ
Children working. Source: CIFOR /

Most people don’t realise that despite abolition more than 200 years ago, slavery remains a problem today. It is cheap and readily accessible, and may exist in the supply chains of brands that many use or wear daily. 

Would you buy a human being? To ask this question in the 21st century, more than 200 years after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, seems ludicrous to many people. Yet, slavey did not end with formal abolition, and the practice continues to this day in what has come to be known as modern slavery.

Modern slavery defies an internationally accepted definition, yet it is generally held to include practices whereby one party is able to control another and force them to labour or undertake activities against their will for the purpose of exploitation and/or economic benefit. This can include child labour, debt bondage, and human trafficking. 71 percent of victims are female, and 62 percent are found in the Asia-Pacific region, where up to 10 million children are victims.

In 2023, the Walk Free Foundation, in collaboration with the International Labor Organization and International Organization for Migration, published estimates suggesting there are currently more than 50 million people trapped in slavery-like conditions worldwide, an increase of 10,000 from 2018. In practical terms this means there are more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history. The amount needed to “purchase” a human being has decreased from the historical equivalent of US$25,000 to US$40,000 per person to less than US$100. Far from being relegated to the pages of history, not only does slavery still exist, it is actually getting worse.

Why slavery is everyone’s problem

Modern slavery is thought to exist in every country and industry worldwide. As a wicked problem or grand challenge, modern slavery is often referred to as a problem hidden in plain sight. This is because even if Australians don’t see slavery in their day-to-day lives, it can be, and often is, embedded in the products they use and consume every day. This makes modern slavery a supply chain problem which could occur in the operations of an organisation’s suppliers or the operations of other suppliers further up the chain. It is estimated that more than US$354 billion dollars of goods are at risk of being produced by modern-day slaves, and  imported into G20 countries every year. The illegal profits associated with these activities are enormous.

While it may be comforting to think of modern slavery as a problem that occurs “elsewhere” in largely developing countries, the problem also exists in advanced economies like Australia. Groups that have been found to be especially vulnerable include migrant workers, international students, and Pacific Island Labour Mobility (PALM) Scheme workers. For example, Senator Tony Sheldon has compared Australia’s seasonal worker scheme to indentured labour with some workers taking home as little as $70 per week. That said, it can be argued everyone is potentially at risk, and greater knowledge and care is needed when seeking to address this problem.

Industries where modern slavery is most likely to occur include anything marked by low-value, labour intensive activities. This may include agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality, and domestic work. Modern slavery has also been seen in other sectors such as car wash businesses, call centres, and even manning phones in criminal ventures associated with love scams.

The prevalence of modern slavery both in Australia and in the products Australians use every day is problematic for a country which claims to support international human rights. However, the Government has not been silent and in 2018, following similar actions in California and the UK, passed the Australian Modern Slavery Act. It was hoped such action would generate a “race to the top” for business with regard to identifying and managing modern slavery risk both in their own operations and supply chains.

The Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth)

The Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) requires all businesses operating in Australia with consolidated revenues greater than AUD$100 million to produce an annual modern slavery statement. More specifically, Section 16 of the Act requires reporting entities to:

  1. describe the risks of modern slavery practices in the operations and supply chains of the reporting entity, and any entities that the reporting entity owns or controls; and
  2. describe the actions taken by the reporting entity and any entity that the reporting entity owns or controls, to assess and address those risks, including due diligence and remediation processes; and
  3. describe how the reporting entity assesses the effectiveness of such actions.

The argument put forward is that greater transparency will lead to improved performance and greater scrutiny of company actions by different stakeholders. While this sounds good in theory, to date there remain no penalties for non-compliance and the corporate response to the Act has been lacklustre at best, and absent at worst. Although some have argued there is a reputational cost to “not doing the right thing,” there is little evidence of this making a real difference in the business world.

In 2023, a review of the Modern Slavery Act was published with recommendations for lowering the reporting threshold to AUD$50 million, introducing penalties for non-compliance, and the establishment of a Federal Anti-Slavery Commissioner. While it remains uncertain which of these recommendations the Federal Government will adopt, the publication of the review suggests modern slavery is not going away as a politically important topic. This position is further supported by the modern slavery legislation being introduced in an increasing number of countries overseas. Collectively this means an opportunity now exists for businesses and consumers to come to terms with what modern slavery is, how it impacts their daily lives, and what this means for them.

The way forward

The rate of progress towards identifying and eradicating modern slavery in the Australian context remains glacial. The need to report on supply chain arrangements has proven particularly challenging for businesses. However, beyond the need to establish new processes and knowledge, one thing must also be acknowledged: businesses are scared. Even those who wish to do a good job and avoid any implication in slavery-related scandals are concerned. A key question often asked is: but what if we find something?

The element of fear is understandable given the public remains largely ignorant about the existence and prevalence of slavery in the modern age. As a result, many businesses prefer to remain reactive, yet a proactive stance will achieve more over time

The fight against modern slavey is not an easy one and it will require a communal effort from business, government, individuals, and non-government organisations. The first step must be education and communication. Start conversations at work, in your home, in recreational places, and in universities and schools. Ask questions about the topic when dealing with businesses, colleagues and friends and lobby for stronger responses.

Slavery is a persistent problem, yet it is not inevitable, and solving it is everyone’s problem. As once stated by historical abolitionist William Wilberforce: “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

Dr Katherine Christ is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at UniSA Business. She is an expert in accounting for modern slavery risk in business operations and supply chains and recently founded the South Australian Modern Slavery Research and Practitioner Network.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.