An ambitious opportunity for government and business collaboration to tackle modern slavery

By Olivia Hicks

How can you tackle something that pervades the supply chains of our governments, businesses and daily products?

Tackling modern slavery* is no meager feat but this is the challenge that faces governments and businesses worldwide. The inaugural Bali Process Government and Business Forum (Perth Forum) is an ambitious opportunity for public-private collaboration to do just that.

It will be launched later this week and bring together business leaders, government officials and other international stakeholders from across the Asia-Pacific region. The attendees will exchange views on how to identify and combat modern slavery and share their experiences of best practices.

Contrary to widespread belief, slavery is not a thing of the past. No country, organisation or individual is immune to modern slavery. It pervades the complex web of supply chains that fuel our economies. By failing to address this risk or turning a blind eye we are likely contributing, at least indirectly, to its proliferation.

The Asia-Pacific, which includes Australia, is particularly prone to the risk of modern slavery. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates there are as many as 45.8 million victims of modern slavery worldwide. Both estimates suggest that over two-thirds of victims are in the Asia-Pacific region. Modern slavery is a risk for developed and developing countries and businesses alike.

Perth Forum is an unprecedented and hugely significant opportunity for governments and businesses in our region. No one person can end modern slavery. Only collaboration, which harnesses the collective power of governments and businesses, can eradicate modern slavery. This initiative aims to inspire leadership and action, not just talk. Unlike governments, businesses operate fluidly across borders and are well placed to develop innovative systems to identify and respond to risks. Businesses bring a different set of tools to the table, many of which are yet to fully harnessed.

Of course governments play an important role and global leaders are increasingly aware of the moral, economic and political imperatives to address this issue. The French and Dutch legislatures have recently introduced new human rights due diligence reporting laws for large companies. The UK, the state of California and the EU have also enacted mandatory reporting laws. Such laws are critical to creating greater corporate accountability by encouraging companies to address their supply chain risks and empowering consumers by shedding light on practices that obstruct human rights. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1913, ‘sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants’.

The Walk Free Foundation has called for all countries to implement mandatory reporting laws at least as strong as the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Australian Government is currently considering this option and also reviewing its procurement policies to ensure they are in line with international best practice.

Yet, while governments play an important role, exploitative practices exist today because they are profitable. Only in partnership with businesses can governments tackle modern slavery.

Addressing supply chain risk is in the interests of companies that aspire to be responsible, sustainable and successful. Opportunities exist for business champions who are willing to tackle slavery head on, such as; industry leadership to influence the global agenda on public-private engagement, strengthened commercial ties, sustainable access to finance and contracts, and reputations benefits.

On the other hand, reputational damage, criminal sanctions, director’s liability, customs restrictions and civil sanctions are certain risks faced by companies that turn a blind eye. Businesses that continuously fail to address supply chain risks are standing on a burning platform.

The Bali Forum is an opportunity for collaboration and action. Senior engagement from the top levels of business and government will have a cascading influence throughout our supply chains. Through public-private collaboration we can eradicate the abhorrent crime that is modern slavery, and together we can make a difference.

* Modern slavery is an umbrella term, which describes a range of exploitative practices that include, amongst other things, forced labour, human trafficking and slavery-like practices.