Fast moves in India-Australia relations risk pushing millions more into modern slavery


Bodean Hedwards, Monash University

This week the leaders of India and Australia reaffirmed their mutual interest in closer diplomatic and economic ties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison during their long-delayed Thursday “virtual summit”:

India is committed to expanding its relations with Australia on a wider and faster pace. This is important not only for our two countries, but also for the Indo-Pacific region and the world.

But I will not say that I am satisfied with this pace. When a leader like you is leading our friend country, then the criteria for the pace of development in our relations should also be ambitious.

Australia should be ambitious for its friendship with India. We have a long-term interest in India developing as another prosperous, harmonious democracy.

Standing in the way of that is India’s chaotic web of labour laws. There are hundreds at both national and state levels. They’ve long been a disincentive to trade and investment because of the compliance challenges for law-abiding foreign businesses.

Yet those same laws are so loosely enforced domestically that dodgy and unlawful working conditions are rife.

Indeed of India’s workforce of 500 million, it is estimated about 450 million are in the “informal sector”, with no minimum pay rates, let alone other benefits.

So there are good reasons for Australia to support India reducing its sheer number of labour laws. But there are also good reasons to encourage it to enforce the commitments required of both nations under international labour conventions.

In the shadows of the agenda to accelerate trade and investment is the risk of pushing more Indian workers into slave conditions.

450 million informal workers

In truth, no one knows the exact size of India’s informal sector. Statistics are unreliable for work defined as “disorganised”.

As in other countries, India’s COVID-19 response has hit these workers in lowly paid, insecure manual labour hardest. This was amplified by the severity and swiftness of measures.

Modi’s March 24 orders for “a complete lockdown” were issued at 8:58pm, and took effect at midnight.

Shops, markets, factories and construction sites were shut down. All public transport services were stopped. India’s population of more than 1.3 billion people was told to stay home.

139 million migrant wokers

But hundred of thousands had to get home first.

India has an estimated 139 million internal “migrant workers”. They come from poor regions all across India to find work in the wealthiest cities such as Mumbai, Delhi and Surat. Typical jobs are in building and manufacturing, where the average daily pay rate is about US$4.60.

With no work, no money, in fear of having no food and of catching the coronavirus, migrant workers have for weeks queued at train and bus stations for restricted services to get home.

Tens of thousands opted to walk home.

A survey of about 3,200 of these walkers in early April found nearly a third were in debt, usually to money lenders from their communities.

Bhagwan Das, who walked for three days to get back to his village after losing his job as a construction worker in Delhi, told his story to the Thomson Reuters Foundation

Unable to maintain repayments on the 60,000 rupee (US$787) loan he took out in 2017 for his daughter’s wedding, Das had no choice but to offer his son’s labour to service the rising debt.

8 million modern slaves

The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates about 8 million Indians are in some form of modern slavery – in situations were they are forced to work under threat; are owned or controlled by another; are dehumanised or treated as a commodity; and are not free to leave.

Globally there is an estimated 40 million modern slaves. About 25 million are in forced labour. This may be through use or threats of violence, physical or emotional restraints, or bonded labour – also known as debt bondage, forcing people to work to pay off a debt.




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Debt bondage is the most prevalent form of forced labour. In India, a 2016 investigation in the southern state of Tamil Nadu (India’s largest producer of cotton yarn) found 351 of 743 spinning mills used so-called “Sumangali” schemes to lure young women with the promise of lump sums for use as a dowry.

In practice this lump sum is made up of withheld wages, and used as a means to bind workers to the mill. Girls only receive the lump sum if they fulfil their three to five years contract period, under exploitative and unhealthy conditions. Girls who fail to do so, and many do because of health problems, abuse and exhaustion, most often do not receive the withheld wages.

This despite bonded labour being outlawed since 1976, and dowries since 1961.

Suspending labour laws

So clearly law enforcement in India needs work. As things stand, however, the push is on to do even less. Half a dozen of India’s 28 states have already signalled their desire to suspend labour laws.

The northern state of Uttar Pradesh, for example, summarily suspended most laws including its minimum wage act. It reportedly plans to maintain most suspensions for three years.

As Radhicka Kapoor, of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, has put it, these policies are “creating an enabling environment for exploitation”.

Upholding commitments

The International Labour Organisation, which sets international labour standards, has written to Modi asking him to ensure India upholds its international commitments.




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Modern Slavery Bill a step in the right direction – now businesses must comply


Both India and Australia are signatories to the International Labour Organsiation’s Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which states “these rights are universal” and apply “to all people in all states – regardless of the level of economic development”.

Ensuring they apply to all of Australia’s supply chains is crucial for the Morrison government to continue to be “a world leader in eradicating modern slavery” – as Home Affairs Minister Jason Woods declared just three days before the Modi-Morrison meeting.The Conversation

Bodean Hedwards, Lecturer, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

At last, Australia has a Modern Slavery Act. Here’s what you’ll need to know



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Soon we’ll have a much better idea of what we are buying, and companies will be shamed into sourcing products better.
Shutterstock

Paul Redmond, University of Technology Sydney

It has taken years, but after votes in the Senate and House of Representatives last week, Australia has a Modern Slavery Act.

It’ll take effect on January 1.

But what difference will it make?

First, what is modern slavery?

Britain abolished slavery on its own soil in 1833. It abolished the most egregious forms of child labour a century later.

But slavery and child labour are still being used to make the products Britons buy, just as they are being used to make the products Australians buy.




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Increasing integrated global supply chains have made it hard to tell whether even products that are stamped “Made in Australia” have at some stage used slaves or underage children as part of the production process.

Forcibly detained adults and children work in industries including fishing, cocoa, cotton, clothing, cannabis, construction and prostitution.

The term “modern slavery” refers only to the worst forms of exploitation, and not to other serious breaches of human rights such as the denial of freedom of association or the denial of worker safety, such as at Rana Plaza clothing factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh in which more than 1,000 garment workers died when their building collapsed in 2013.




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The International Labour Organisation believes that 21 million people worldwide are forced labourers, half of them in the Asia-Pacific region.

What will be required

As with the British Act, Australia’s will require businesses and other organisations above a certain size (consolidated revenue of A$100 million) to report annually on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, and the action they have taken to assess and address those risks, and the effectiveness of their response.

Smaller businesses will be able to report voluntarily.

To ensure high-level engagement, the statement has to be approved by the board of directors or equivalent and signed by a director.




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We analysed 101 companies’ statements on modern slavery – here’s what we found


The statements will be publicly available on a central register maintained by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth government itself, and those of its entities that satisfy the reporting revenue threshold, will also have to prepare a statement.

What will not be required

Two controversial omissions are penalties and independent oversight.

The government was unwilling to impose a penalty for failing to lodge a statement or for lodging an incomplete statement.

This needn’t be fatal. The requirement and the public register means that companies that don’t report properly can be “named and shamed” by non-government organisations. Consumer pressure can itself become a sanction.




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The UK experience does not encourage optimism as about compliance.

In response to these concerns, Senate amendments have empowered the minister to name and shame his or herself, publicly calling out continued instances of non-compliance and reporting to parliament annually on compliance trends.

Australia’s parliamentary inquiry and a good many of the submissions strongly supported the appointment of an independent statutory anti-slavery commissioner with the authority and resources to oversee compliance.

The government will instead establish a departmental unit to help business address slavery risks and prepare statements.




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Should Australia have a Modern Slavery Act?


The Labor party supports both penalties and the appointment of an independent commissioner.

It is possible that both requirements will be in place before the first modern slavery statements are due on June 30, 2020.

NSW has also passed its own Modern Slavery Act, due to take effect after the Commonwealth Act commences. It imposes a lower revenue reporting threshold of $50 million, and provides for penalties for businesses that do not comply, of up to A$1.1 million.

It also creates the post of Independent NSW Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

What now

American baseballer Yogi Berra said that when we come to a fork in the road, we should take it. Wise advice. We have two ways forward and should take both. In truth, they converge.

First, we need to monitor compliance levels, and determine whether penalties and independent oversight are needed. And we need to set up processes that ensure the reports are of good quality.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide a guide. Happily, the Act adopts these principles.

The other path is to address the broader harm that Australian businesses can do, beyond incorporating slavery into products that are sold in Australia.




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The Guiding Principles help here too, outlining the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights and to provide remedies wherever they operate.

This responsibility extends to our mining companies, 200 in Africa alone, who should respect human rights whether or not slavery is incorporated in products they sell back here.

And it extends to technology companies whose platforms put people at risk such as Facebook’s possible role in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Slavery is important, but there is more to human rights than slavery.

The Act is a start, quite a good one. We will need more.The Conversation

Paul Redmond, Sir Gerard Brennan Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Should Australia have a Modern Slavery Act?



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Businessman Andrew Forrest and his wife Nicola are strong advocates of anti-slavery measures.
AAP/Alan Porritt

Fiona McGaughey, University of Western Australia; Dave Webb, University of Western Australia, and Peta-Jane Hogg, University of Western Australia

There has been a flurry of activity recently in relation to establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. This has included a parliamentary inquiry and Labor’s recent policy release on the topic.

Is slavery a problem in Australia?

First, there is no doubt that activities associated with modern slavery, such as human trafficking, servitude and forced labour, are grave human rights issues, requiring a dedicated and co-ordinated response.

Governments cannot solve the problem on their own. It is a particular issue in countries like India, but also occurs in Australia.

Between 2004 and 2016, the Australian Federal Police received almost 700 referrals relating to suspected human trafficking and slavery-related crimes, though only 17 people have so far been convicted of these offences.

Most recently, in February 2017, two men pleaded guilty to charges of servitude relating to their treatment of Taiwanese workers in Brisbane.

Recent media reports of exploitation of migrant workers in Western Australian farms and market gardens, Victorian farms, and in 7-Eleven retail stores nationwide, suggests this is a real – but often hidden – issue in Australia.

What developments are underway for a Modern Slavery Act in Australia?

Moves are underway in Australia to introduce new laws to tackle slavery that will operate outside the existing criminal law framework.

On February 15, a parliamentary inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia was launched. The terms of reference for the inquiry specifically refer to the UK’s Modern Slavery Act and to relevant findings from the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s 2013 report Trading Lives: Modern Day Human Trafficking.

Although the UK’s Modern Slavery Act has seven parts, including protection for victims, civil and criminal provisions, new maritime enforcement mechanisms, and the establishment of an anti-slavery commissioner, the focus has overwhelmingly been on its impact on businesses.

The act and associated regulations require businesses with a turnover of £36 million or more to disclose what they are doing to eliminate slavery and trafficking from their supply chains and their own businesses. It appears there is support from people in the business community, and faith-based and other non-governmental organisations, for a similar business reporting initiative in Australia.

A key promoter of the introduction of a Modern Slavery Act here is businessman and philanthropist Andrew Forrest. He and his wife Nicola established Walk Free, a Perth-based international non-governmental organisation with a mission to “end modern slavery in our generation”.
Walk Free was one of the 173 organisations and individuals to make a submission to the parliamentary inquiry.

Although submissions varied in terms of how modern slavery and trafficking might best be tackled, there was broad, in-principle support for the introduction of an act. This includes submissions by businesses such as Qantas and Wesfarmers, both of which already report on their anti-slavery efforts under the UK legislation.

There is apparent bipartisan support for the initiative. The Coalition government has been exploring options for business reporting over the last several years through the Supply Chains Working Group set up as part of the National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery.

Labor has expressed strong support for the introduction of new business reporting obligations, proposing to go further than the UK by imposing penalties on businesses in Australia that fail to report on their anti-slavery efforts.

In the UK, as well as at an international level, compliance with such reporting obligations is primarily driven by considerations of public opinion.

What international obligations exist?

Several voluntary international obligations relevant to modern slavery exist. Globally, more than 9,400 organisations from over 160 countries have committed as participants to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC). This is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, actively engaging in responsible human rights and labour practices.

The Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA) brings together UNGC participants, other leading companies, non-profit organisations and universities – including the University of Western Australia – to advance these same goals in Australia.

Furthermore, the UN has guiding principles on business and human rights. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has recently established an advisory group on the implementation of these principles.

OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises also apply to Australian businesses. For example, the associated dispute resolution mechanism has been used to bring a complaint against security firm GS4 Australia for conditions and alleged abuse of detainees on Manus Island.

Will an Australian Modern Slavery Act prove effective?

Last week’s visit to Australia by Kevin Hyland, the UK anti-slavery commissioner, was timely.

Although the UK legislation has received a cautious welcome so far, it is too early to judge whether it will have any meaningful impact on reducing worker exploitation.

In Australia, longstanding criminal laws against trafficking and slavery have not prevented their occurrence and, for the most part, have not been relied on by authorities to prosecute exploitation. The effectiveness of pursuing employers for the exploitation of migrant workers via the Fair Work Ombudsman is also limited.

By extending the responsibility to tackle exploitation to include business and not just government, it is hoped that the introduction of an Australian Modern Slavery Act will help tackle worker exploitation. However, there remains a risk that this initiative will continue the trend of side-stepping the root causes of worker exploitation in this country.

Vulnerability to workplace exploitation is closely connected to the regulation of migration and labour.

The ConversationTherefore, as well as receiving the support of Australia’s business community, any proposed solution to this problem must engage with government policies and practices affecting migration and migrant labour to reduce worker vulnerability.

Fiona McGaughey, Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Western Australia; Dave Webb, Associate Professor of Marketing and Business Ethics, University of Western Australia, and Peta-Jane Hogg, PhD Candidate in Law, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.