Can Australian law eliminate ‘modern slavery’?

By Jolyon Ford, PhD ’11

Modern slavery is a condition experienced by at least 20 million people, mostly in our Indo-Pacific region, who quite literally are forced to work.

Can Australian law eliminate ‘modern slavery’?

Modern slavery is a condition experienced by at least 20 million people, mostly in our Indo-Pacific region, who quite literally are forced to work.

Their mostly manual labour is extracted under coercion, threat of violence and/or gross deception. They are unable to escape or to change their servile status. They are effectively imprisoned, not merely trapped by economic circumstance.

Modern slavery abroad is a problem for Australians, too. The global market for consumer and other goods relies on complex transnational supply chains.

Australian retailers may rely on multiple tiers of contractors in developing countries. The suppliers’ labour practices may fall well below minimal standards, to the point where they constitute a serious human rights violation; some forced labour workers may also be victims of human trafficking.

Where labour standards are not just poor but amount to servitude and slavery-like practices, the risk exists that Australians buy and consume goods that in effect are tainted by the forced labour of others.

Is the chocolate we eat partly made from cacao harvested by child labour in West Africa? Is the canned tuna we buy caught by fishermen not free to leave their job?

My research looks at ways to narrow the ‘governance gap’ produced by our globalised economy, as this relates to the adverse impacts that businesses can have on human rights.

Legal measures to combat modern slavery in corporate supply chains are a hot topic in this wider, emerging ‘business and human rights’ field.

Centuries after the great William Wilberforce worked for legal interventions to abolish the slave trade (and then slavery itself), we are interested in how legal models can address modern variants of this unacceptable practice. I ask who should be regulating these patterns and behaviours, and how we might design legitimate, effective and coherent regulation.