Business must do more to stamp out modern slavery in supply chains

Oped by Andrew Forrest in The Australian.  18 February 2013.  

 

UNTIL recently, I was ignorant of the reality of modern slavery.

It was not until my 14-year-old daughter spent time at an orphanage in Nepal that I learnt about this issue. She excitedly returned and begged her mother and me to allow her to accompany us back to Nepal to visit the children she had befriended. When we did, we could find barely any of the children she had played with just a year earlier, except those who had profound disabilities or disfigurements. We will never know what went on in that place but we believe our daughter’s friends were sold by people who were supposed to protect them.

From that day, my wife Nicola and I have learned everything we can about this issue. We’ve met survivors of slavery in Australia. We’ve visited rubbish dumps in Cambodia where children eke out an existence, vulnerable to sex offenders and worse.

The issues are complex but one thing is clear: we cannot simply stand by as mere observers.

Earlier this year, I asked what Fortescue Metals Group could do.

As a start, we committed to a zero-tolerance approach to forced labour and slavery. We wrote to all our suppliers asking for a statutory declaration that they do not have any forced labour in their supply chains.

We’ve also audited our own policies, and are identifying high-risk suppliers for independent labour audits.

I am stunned at how quickly we identified problems.

We found companies engaging in business practices that feed into the cycle of forced labour. This has confirmed a lesson that I want all chief executives to hear: if you don’t look, you won’t find.

We have found companies that are engaging in unethical and irresponsible business practices that put people at risk of forced labour.

We have worked constructively to ensure those companies recognise their role and ensure their businesses are cleaned up.

The issue is not whether someone gets caught with forced labour in their supply chains, it is what they do when they find out.

We need business, government and civil society to find real solutions.

Last December, I began asking my CEO and chairmen colleagues to pledge to a zero-tolerance approach to slavery and forced labour in their supply chains.

This pledge is not about business pretending to be perfect — it’s about business leaders being brave enough to look deeply into their supply chains, and respond responsibly to whatever they find.

I am proud the Australian government has been taking this issue seriously. Last night, Walk Free introduced Julia Gillard to modern slavery survivors at a dinner at The Lodge. While underlining the fact even Australia is not immune to these heinous crimes, it was a tremendous opportunity to discuss what more Australia could do here and abroad.

It was with a mixture of joy and relief when at a concert in Myanmar late last year, the chief of police of the Myanmar government committed his government to be the first in the world to sign Walk Free’s Zero Tolerance for Slavery and Forced Labour pledge. The Myanmar government estimated the pledge was signed in front of an audience of more than 200,000 people.

I know we are just starting down this road, but if all leading companies and governments join this journey, we will make a mighty impact.

As business leaders, we will know we have almost won the battle when the public begins to congratulate companies brave enough to tackle the issue.

Andrew Forrest is chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, The Australian Children’s Trust and is the founder of Walk Free: The Movement to End Modern Slavery

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