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How COVID-19 can push modern slavery into the Australian supply chain

This year we have seen a complete overhaul of everyday life due to COVID-19. The ever-changing restrictions and abrupt changes to society have meant most industries have had to adapt and meet regulatory operating guidelines. Under pressure, standards of quality and morality can often be weakened and the phrase ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ can begin to take effect.

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COVID-19 has turned international and national trade on its head as boarders are shut, factories halt production, and demand for essential products far outweighs supply capabilities. The Institute for Supply Management has found that nearly 75% of companies have reported supply chain disruption. The repercussions can be debilitating as workers, who are often already on minimum wage, are left seeking alternative income putting the defenseless at a greater risk of modern slavery.

Modern slavery describes serious exploitation in the workplace, such as human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced labour, amongst others. Findings from the Global Slavery Index estimate there were approximately 15,000 people living in “conditions of modern slavery” in Australia in 2016.

With countries like America using prison labour to create medical-grade facemasks and hand sanitiser in exchange for less than minimum wage, the Western world is certainly not immune to exploitation. Opportunities to exploit Australians are heightened during times of crisis where people may:

  • experience loss of income
  • have low awareness of workplace rights
  • are required to work excessive overtime
  • have increased work demand due to supply chain shortages and
  • have the inability to return safely to home countries.

The ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ mindset can lead to exploitation of workers as they look for a secure source of stable income. Unfortunately, it is common for the vulnerable to be deceived and led into manipulative circumstances, only to realise their situation when it is too late. Thus, the cycle continues.

To avoid subjecting vulnerable workers to this kind of treatment, it requires both big and small organisations to seek transparency from their suppliers and third-party operators. Transparency is key in creating and maintaining a sustainable supply strategy – socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.

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It is crucial that businesses maintain supplier relationships and keep communication open around the risks associated with COVID-19. It is essential that organisations are liaising with their suppliers to ensure vulnerable workers are supported by being flexible and adapting to the current situation. Communication is key in reinforcing rights and roles with all operational parties – that is from the CEO down to the line workers. Access to sick and carers leave, the correct protective equipment, the availability of grievance mechanisms and whistleblowing options, and the confirmed knowledge of increased cleaning in workplace facilities are all within employee rights.

Collaborating with support networks such as employees, investors, civil society, peak bodies and suppliers is the best method in creating a solutions-based approach – particularly when adapting to industry changes to safeguard ethical workplaces. This includes educating staff around the current situation and identifying what modern slavery is and how it can happen during the existing pandemic.

Finally, being aware of both national and international legislation and resources in line with the current trading climate will support operations and assist practical application of any relevant changes. Staying up to date with human rights, fair trade and fair labour guidelines should be an ongoing practice in day-to-day trading. If we can learn anything from COVID-19, it is the importance of ethical and transparent trade.

The current pandemic has exposed imperfections in the stringent money-saving processes that put thousands of workers at risk just by going to work every day. Now is a time to inflict change on the current supply chain format to sustain ethical Australian businesses practices long into the future.

Nicholas Bernhardt is CEO of Informed 365

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